Washington’s likely plans to restore the
Iranian monarchy are foolhardy
The United States is planning for “regime change” in Iran, and it may have already picked the new rulers of that country.
The form of government would be a constitutional monarchy, with the head of state being Reza Pahlavi, son of the former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was deposed in the 1978-79 Islamic revolution.
The Bush administration apparently has a handpicked American “plumber” ready to go in Iran, much like Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq. This is Sohrab “Rob” Sobhani, an Iranian-American associated with the neoconservatives in Washington. With Reza Pahlavi as Shah, the 40-ish Sobhani would presumably be prime minister or president.
His promoter is American Enterprise Institute Freedom Chair Holder Michael Ledeen, who has written and lectured obsessively about regime change in Iran. Ledeen was reported by the Washington Post to be one of four advisers in regular consultation with White House strategist, Karl Rove. Ledeen and Sobhani recently established the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI) to promote this regime change.
Reza Pahlavi had been living quietly in Maryland until Sept. 11, when he began to address the Iranian community via the internet and satellite television. This prompted the Iranian community to dub him the “Internet Prince.”
Rob Sobhani, who has known Reza Pahlavi since childhood, was actually born in Kansas. His doctorate, completed in 1987, dealt with Iranian-Israeli relations from 1948-88. He became a specialist in energy policy. He has had his finger in many pies in Washington, including consultation on the construction of an oil and gas pipeline across Afghanistan. Well-connected politically, he ran twice for the US Senate from Maryland as a Republican. Although his heritage is Iranian, he is far from being an expert on Iranian society, politics or economics. His move to the Washington area put him in close contact with his old friend, Reza Pahlavi.
Sobhani’s interests in regime change are very clear and very consonant with American desires. They are largely commercial. Following his graduation from Georgetown, he became head of a Caspian Energy Consulting, a firm dealing with the transport and sale of Caspian oil. He has had his finger in many pies in Washington, including an active role on the construction of an oil and gas pipeline across Afghanistan. On March 5, 2001 in an article written with Pennsylvania State business professor, Fariborz Ghadar, he advocated a number of the policies that have since been carried out by the US, including containing the Taleban and Saddam Hussein. He also notes that supporting a secularization of Iran would lead to easier transport of Caspian oil through Iranian territory.
Of equal importance, Sobhani also sees secularization of Iran as beneficial for Israel. This is not surprising, since Israel and Iran had excellent ties before the 1978-9 Islamic Revolution. The Iranian Jewish community is the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world. The community is as prominent in diaspora as in Iran, with members in powerful positions in the Israeli government and in American life, particularly in California. Elimination of the clerical regime in Iran would eliminate support for Hizbullah. It might even lead to renewed trade between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
Ledeen, Sobhani and Morris Amitay, former director of the principal Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) joined forces at the American Enterprise Institute in a seminar entitled The Future of Iran, in which they called for regime change. AIPAC has indicated support for the restoration of Reza Pahlavi to the throne, although they wish to remain in the background, as reported by Mark Perelman on May 16 in the New York Jewish Daily Forward. Perelman quotes one AIPAC official as stating that “the Jewish groups are telling Reza that they will give him private support and help arrange meetings with US officials,” Since Sept. 11, 2001, Sobhani has appeared widely in the media, urging the US government to support an internal revolution in Iran. His appearances can be seen as growing endorsement of his possible role as a future leader in a post-coup Iran, as his image is honed by the media-savvy Bush administration.
Sobhani has pursued a ploy in order to give himself academic billing for television and the lecture circuit. He teaches one course at his alma mater, Georgetown University on Iran and Caspian Oil politics. On this basis he has claimed to be a “professor” at Georgetown. He is in fact an adjunct faculty member at the college, but here it is hard to know what kind of “adjunct” he is, since he never seems to be on campus. The chair of the department of government has tried in vain to get him to cease and desist in claiming this affiliation.
Both Sobhani and Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, with whom he has founded an organization, The Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI) are remarkably cagey about claims for the restoration of the monarchy. Their ambitions are clearly to restore the Pahlavi dynasty, but they are both exceptionally careful about making this pronunciation openly or in print. They are frequently photographed with Reza Pahlavi, and Sobhani has had a lifelong friendship with Reza. In some circles Sobhani is derisively referred to as “The Pretender’s Prime Minister.” Sobhani, when he refers to Reza, frequently calls him an “activist” rather than a future monarch.
All three have connections with the media agency, Benador Associates, who manages both their op-ed placements and televison appearances. Eleana Benador represents Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Charles Krauthammer, Martin Kramer and other conservatives connected to the Bush administration. Pictures of Eleana Benador and Reza Pahlavi with Israeli supporter and AIPAC member Bob Guzzardi, and Middle East Forum head Daniel Pipes appear on Bob Guzzardi’s website, www.bobguzzardi.com.
Sobhani and Ledeen clearly feel that the United States can produce an internal coup in Iran. Ledeen has said as much in The War Against the Terror Masters and many articles for the National Review Online, the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.
Ledeen and Sobhani expect to have the coup first, then present Reza Pahlavi as the emergent ruler. Ledeen said as much in a rally in Los Angeles for Iranian monarchists, saying in effect: Let’s have the revolution first, then worry about who will rule Iran. He put a price tag on the operation saying, “I think you can buy yourself free Iran today for $20 million.” What Ledeen, who has never traveled to Iran, and Sobhani don’t understand is that Iranians are deeply skeptical about American motives in the Middle East. They remember that the CIA engineered a counter-coup in 1953 which deposed a popular revolution against the Pahlavi regime. The counter-coup created an American puppet regime in Iran, which only came to an end in 1978-79 with the Islamic revolution. For such an operation to work, it can not be tied to an overt embracing of a restoration of the monarchy. Moreover, it cannot specifically espouse use of the People’s Mujahideen (MEK, MKO), the guerrilla movement opposing the Iranian government from Iraq. Both the Pahlavi regime and the mujahiddeen are widely opposed in Iran, even from people who would like to see clerical rule eliminated.
Astonishing for Americans is the fact that many Iranians feel that the United States engineered the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power. The theory is that the American government felt that containment of the Soviet Union would best be effected by the establishment of a “Green Belt” (green is a sacred color in Islam) to confront the “godless Communists.” When the Shah became sick and unreliable, according to this theory, the United States traded the “crown for the turban.” The resulting new regime was seen to be just as repressive as the old one. However, it did prevent Communists from coming to the fore. Thus, for a large body of Iranians, Americans have always controlled the Iranian government. To have Reza Pahlavi return to power with American blessing would, for many Iranians, be a continuation of American interference in Iranian affairs.
Added to this are the insults and damages that the United States has inflicted on Iran over the past two-and-a-half decades. Iranians will never forget that the United States tilted toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. By all accounts, Iran would have won the war if the United States had not interfered. Moreover, it is widely known that the United States provided poison gas and other chemical weapons to Iraq during that conflict.
Also regarded with bitterness are incidents like a downing of an Iranian plane by the United States during the Gulf War, an incident for which Washington never apologized. Economic sanctions against Iran are not debilitating, but they are a significant annoyance, and the continual insulting treatment of visa applicants and arrivals on American shores is humiliating for the well-educated, sophisticated Iranian citizenry. Such outrages as world-famous Iranian film-makers receiving major international rewards have been denied visas to come to the United States, or have been strip-searched at Kennedy Airport.
Could a restored monarchy succeed in Iran? The answer is a qualified “yes,” with the very large caveat that America can not be involved in any way. If Reza Pahlavi, or any leader is to succeed in leading Iran, he or she must do so without overt US help. Once Iran is established on its own, not under an American thumb, the two nations may re-establish their relationship with some profit.
The best model for reforming Iran is the carrot, not the stick. An example of this process is seen in the European Union, which has lured states into its fold with the promise of economic prosperity. The new states entering the EU have bent over backwards to reform criminal practice, economic practice, and human rights attitudes to gain membership. The best thing the United States could do is to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, get involved with commercial dealings, and give the Iranians some reason to undertake reforms a better life in partnership with the West. In time, the younger generation, which makes up more than 75 percent of the population, will take over. Having democratic models close at hand, and some incentive, they will make the necessary changes themselves, without the CIA, or machinations from Washington.
William O. Beeman (William_beeman@brown.edu) teaches anthropology and is Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star