President Joe Biden should focus on expanding his predecessor’s landmark normalization deals between Israel and its historic adversaries in order to bring peace and prosperity to the region, the son of Iran’s last royal ruler has said.
Reza Pahlavi, who lives in exile in the U.S., told Newsweek that Biden should build on one of President Donald Trump‘s landmark foreign policy achievements, framing the accords as the best chance for Middle East peace and prosperity.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco all signed normalization deals with Israel in the final months of Trump’s term. The U.S. sweetened the deals with financial and diplomatic incentives, helping overcome the generations of enmity between Israel and its long-time adversaries.
Fragile new alliance
The normalization deals were another brick in the Trump White House’s anti-Iran axis, bringing together Israel and other regional allies to face down the perceived threat from Tehran. But with Biden looking to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, this alliance is looking shaky.
Pahlavi—a vehement critic of the Iranian regime, an opponent of the JCPOA and an advocate for true democratic government in Iran—told Newsweek in an interview that the Abraham Accords could prove the key to peace in the Middle East and unlocking the region’s potential; a revolution in prosperity that could spread to Iran.
“The best prospect for peace and a meteoric rise in prosperity in the Middle East will be the extension of these Accords,” Pahlavi said. But rather than a united front against Iran, Pahlavi said the agreements should stand for something more aspirational.
“I don’t see this remarkable alliance as being based on what it is against, but rather on what it is for,” he told Newsweek. “It represents the promise of our region and the capacity it has for peace and progress. I know Iranian youth, especially, yearn to be part of something like this.”
“Instead under the Islamic Republic they, like the children of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and other nations occupied by the Axis of Resistance are condemned to lives of misery and squalor,” Pahlavi added, referring to the historic alliance between Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group.
Pahlavi told Newsweek that Biden’s bid to revive the JCPOA is a “grave error” that would embolden the Iranian regime and abandon Iranians living under the repressive state. But for Biden and JCPOA advocates, the deal remains the only way to keep limits on Tehran’s nuclear program while reducing regional tensions.
Conservatives in the U.S. and American allies in Israel and other Middle Eastern nations are pushing back against Biden’s plan to return to compliance with the JCPOA. They say that the deal is inadequate in failing to address Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its use of regional proxy militias.
They warn that even if Iran could be trusted to comply with the nuclear limits, the restrictions expire in 2025, after which Iran will be free to push ahead with its program. Biden has said the JCPOA will be the foundation for a broader agreement addressing the original deal’s flaws, but many are skeptical of his vision.
American allies might decide to break with Biden’s diplomacy push and pursue their own goals. Israel, for example, has rarely shied away from unilateral action against enemies it considers existential threats, including nuclear facilities and personnel in Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Pahlavi warned such measures against Iran would be counterproductive. “Military action will never be a sustainable solution to the ongoing crises and threats posed by the Islamic Republic,” he said.
“Whatever happens with the nuclear file, the regime’s regional expansionism will continue. That is the real cause of conflict. The only path to ending, once and for all, the brinkmanship, the threats, and the violence, is dealing with all issues simultaneously,” Pahlavi said.
“The best means of doing that is for these nations to support the Iranian people’s democratic desires. In a free Iran, such conflicts and threats will not exist.”
The assassinations of Major General Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—reportedly by Israel—are examples of the deadly capabilities of Iran’s enemies.
Trump critics decried both as risky escalations, but Pahlavi stressed that both men were part of Tehran’s aggressive regional strategy. “When one does this to powerful adversaries, consequences are to be expected,” he said. “My painful regret is that at the end, the Iranian people are still paying the price.”
Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy meant ever more punitive sanctions on Iran, choking the country’s vital oil exports and undermining its already struggling economy. The regime was shaken by these economic crises combined with coronavirus, popular unrest and foreign pressure, but did survive the hawkish administration.
The former president emboldened the conservative voices within Iran that had always warned that the U.S. could not be trusted. Discontent—along with traditional vote rigging—helped conservatives sweep last year’s parliamentary elections, and moderate President Hassan Rouhani is expected to be replaced by a conservative candidate when his term ends this summer.
It may be that Biden spends much of his term negotiating with a hardliner president in Iran, perhaps even one from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But Pahlavi dismissed the “false notion” of “conservatives versus moderates.” Even the so-called moderates, he said, have failed to deliver for the Iranian people. “The notion that my compatriots should wait for slow, meaningless changes which never materializes is an insult to them,” he said.
“Indeed it was under a so-called reformist that more than 1,500 Iranians were massacred in the November 2019 protests,” Pahlavi added. “Iranians know that the solution to our country’s problems will not be provided by either of these two camps and that indeed, they are two wings of the same bird.”
But for all the internal and external pressure, the Iranian regime persists. There is no clear alternative to its theocratic rule and no coherent blueprint for a democratic transition.
Regime change advocates in the U.S. have done their cause few favors by associating with fringe groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) and are still marked by their support for the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Popular uprisings show there is widespread discontent in Iran, but so far the regime has been strong enough to suppress them, whether under a conservative or moderate government.
Pahlavi still believes it is only a matter of time before the regime falls. “This historic shift is as irreversible as it is predictable,” Pahlavi said. “Totalitarian states can only maintain shows of popular participation for so long, inevitably the population realizes that no reform will come.”
“Brace yourself for a major change, a popular uprising in Iran,” he added. “Unfortunately, current U.S. or European policy does not seem to take this contingency seriously enough in their policy planning.”
But inside Iran, he said, there has been a “drastic change” in public sentiment. “For two decades, the Iranian political sphere was dominated by false promises of reforms. That promise is gone,” he said, referring to Rouhani’s perceived failings.
“The last two major uprisings across Iran made public what people had always said in private: this regime must go. This is much more fertile ground for the coalescence of the opposition than before.”
Any regime collapse runs the risk of civil war. Iran’s strategic importance, riches and oil wealth will draw in foreign nations keen to spin unrest in their favor. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, recent years have seen how disastrous such power vacuums can be.
Pahlavi rejected this danger, claiming Iran “cannot be compared to other regional countries” and must be taken in its own context. “Change in Iran will come through an uprising against the Islamic Republic and its extremism: domestic and international,” he said.
“It will reflect what a new generation of Iranians want: peace in the region and prosperity at home. That change can absolutely be peaceful and that is what I have spent my life advocating, to prevent the bloodshed of my compatriots.”
“I have always insisted on nonviolent civil disobedience followed by a period of national reconciliation and amnesty,” Pahlavi added. “This will allow our country’s armed forces to, after nationwide protests and labor strikes, join the movement and stand with the people to prevent bloodshed.”
Secular democracy advocates in other regional countries would have said the same before their own revolutions failed, or morphed into authoritarianism and extremism. Indeed, Pahlavi’s critics would argue he is in no place to opine on Iran’s future given his own links to its dark past.
His father, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, oversaw brutal suppression of political opponents spearheaded by the infamous SAVAK secret police. Discontent swelled into a popular uprising, later hijacked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers. Many liberal and leftist revolutionaries eventually met the same fate as those they overthrew.
Still, some research suggests Pahlavi is in a position to be something more. According to a 2018 study by the independent, Netherlands-based Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, Pahlavi would be by far the most popular candidate in a future hypothetical free election.
Pahlavi maintains that his role is to facilitate discussion of and planning for a future democratic revolution in Iran. “I do not advocate a return to the past,” he said. “The only thing I advocate is the democratic rights of my compatriots. I seek no role for myself other than being their advocate.”