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Marjan Keypour
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The path to regime change in Iran runs through Reza Pahlavi

All the West's other approaches have failed. The Shah's exiled son offers the best hope for a peaceful transition to a free Iran
Reza Pahlavi attends the official Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on April 17, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Reza Pahlavi attends the official Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on April 17, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The Islamic Republic in Iran has had two major tenets since its inception: the hijab and enmity toward Israel. Anti-hijab activists have been fighting against the hijab convention since it was first introduced. Their efforts have gained momentum over the decades but since the brutal murder of Mahsa Amini, the acts of defiance reached new levels. Their courageous acts and chants of “Woman. Life. Freedom” have inspired new allies and compelled world leaders to pay attention to their struggles. Abroad, activists such as Masih Alinejad and Hamed Esmaeilion met with politicians and leaders including President Macron and Justin Trudeau to fight for their rights and demand justice. But until now, no opposition leader has formally and prominently risen to challenge the regime’s other dogma – its irrational enmity toward Israel.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s longstanding mission to eliminate the “cancerous tumor” remained an uncomfortable reality among activists, a controversial topic, criticism of which carried too much risk. But in April, crown prince Reza Pahlavi rose to the challenge as he accepted Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to visit the Jewish state. Netanyahu and Pahlavi challenged the longstanding state of hostility between their two countries and demonstrated the possibility of a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship, even if only in a symbolic manner.

Israel and the Iranian people are both fighting for safety and their right to self-determination, and they’re united by the threat of a common enemy who is determined to prevent them. The viral images from the trip represented a glimpse into the future, having leaped over the hurdles and arrived at the day where the nightmare of misery, terrorism, and hate has vanished and peace has overtaken the region. Yes, like a fantasy, but within reach.

For their part, the Iranian people are increasingly showing that they are ready for that day. Having reaped no benefit from the hostility, they are increasingly questioning and criticizing the irrational hatred. In a nation that invests billions on proxy militia and anti-Israel textbooks and propaganda, chants like “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran” and “Iran has become Palestine, why are we still sitting?” are being heard more frequently, despite the threats of arrests. After the historic trip to Israel, spectators of an athletic event in Gonabad spontaneously chanted “Death to Palestine” and “Salute to Israel.

Though the trip was largely viewed as a success, it wasn’t devoid of criticism. Some opined that the current state of affairs in Israel and Netanyahu’s personal standing did not create the best conditions for this trip. Although the domestic challenges in Israel are real, the criticism is irrelevant. Israel has not hidden its domestic challenges from the international community and regardless of the judgments, Netanyahu is a democratically elected leader with a constituency. The message should not be conflated with the messenger nor should it be diminished because of the domestic state of affairs. At the end of the day, Israelis want to live without an external threat.

Others who criticize the trip on because Reza Pahlavi is unelected should recognize the reality that was acknowledged by Netanyahu’s team: despite the chatter and the drama, Pahlavi is the sole leader with the gravitas and wisdom to command the opposition through to the finish line. Pahlavi did not visit Israel claiming to be the heir apparent to a long-lost throne. He sees himself as a catalyst for overthrowing the regime, not a future king or candidate for office – he believes that the ballot box will determine the future government of Iran, not blood lineage

Pahlavi, who has been strategizing for Iran since his father was deposed, is the most experienced and sensible strategist for a smooth transition to a free Iran. He has adopted three essential principles to achieve this goal. First, he has opened a wide tent, allowing those affiliated with the regime’s repressive machine who are conflicted about their actions to absolve themselves by joining forces with local protesters. This approach reduces bloodshed in the streets and prepares the country for a less violent transition. Additionally, Pahlavi opposes military action against the country due to his patriotic passion for the people, their history, and the land. Most importantly, he is committed to the country’s territorial integrity and rejects any separatist ideas. These perspectives are appealing to pragmatic leaders who wish to prevent territorial disputes and regional unrest. Pahlavi’s prudent vision for the transition, combined with his lack of appetite for power, disarms those focused on overthrowing the regime but may threaten those who are timid about adopting regime-change policies.

Recent meetings have demonstrated that Pahlavi is the most experienced and pragmatic thought partner for serious discussions about Iran. Pahlavi is a leader that the US government and other world leaders must hear and engage with. For more than 40 years, the international community has experimented with a wide range of policies toward Iran, including constructive engagement, crippling sanctions, nuclear agreements, backdoor diplomacy, and even the threat of war. They have even placed their hopes in so-called reform candidates and bought into Iran’s pantomime of elections. However, the Iranian regime has done little more than tighten its grip on its people, expand its reach in the Middle East and beyond, direct hundreds of acts of terror around the world, aggressively pursue a nuclear agenda, and continually renew its vow to destroy sovereign nations.

It is time to admit that past policies have been tried and proven to fail. But today there is a new opportunity to get it right and start to repair decades of bad decisions. It is time to engage new visions and hope for a free Iran once and for all.

About the Author
Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights activist and founder of StopFemicideIran.org, and ARAMIran.org. She’s a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and member of ADL’s Task Force for Middle East Minorities.
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