My Vision by Reza Pahlavi: Increasingly Disenchanted with the Ruling Regime of Hard-Line Clerics, Supports for Reza Pahlavi -- the Man Who Advocates Secular Democracy -- Is Growing Inside Iran. Adel Darwish Talked to Prince Reza about His Hopes for the Homeland He Was Forced to Flee More Than 20 Years Ago. (Current Affairs)

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When American bombs were raining down on what is left of Afghanistan last November, fellow Muslims in the neighbouring Islamic republic of Iran took to the streets. Contrary to the expectations of many in the West, they did not rally to denounce `the Great Satan' -- the name given to America by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Instead, ordinary Iranians, in one of the most extraordinary shifts in the geopolitical landscape since 11 September, challenged their own hard-line Islamic clerics, the very group that swept Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi into exile in 1979.

Tens of thousands of Iranian men and women also demonstrated in several cities after World Cup qualifying soccer matches. Amid expressions of support for the national football team, the protesters could be heard chanting, "We love you, America". After smashing up banks, public telephones, street lighting and bus stops, hundreds were arrested.

The man emerging as an important figurehead for the nascent rebellion is none other than the late shah's son, 41 year-old former fighter pilot, Reza Pahlavi, who has spent the last two decades in exile.

When he was 14 years old, his father was diagnosed with lymphoma. As a result, the teenage prince had to grow up quickly. He was snatched from the teenage culture of his peers and thrust into a monarchical apprenticeship, which included state visits to Egypt and England. A mere four years later, his father died in Egypt. Reza Pahlavi struggled to fight back tears, as distressed Iranian nationalists gathered in Cairo to witness him taking the oath as legal claimant of the Iranian throne.

In 1980, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tore up the treaty he had signed with his father five years earlier, Prince Reza sent a telegram to General Velayatollah Felahie, Chief Commander of the Iranian armed forces, offering to serve in the Iranian air force as a fighter pilot to defend his nation. The ayatollahs turned down his offer, believing his presence would contradict their version of Iran's history.

Twenty two years later, Prince Reza Pahlavi, looking more and more like his late father, still offers his service to his nation. He looks a little more tired than on the last occasion we met, early last year, in the same modest central London hotel. The staff there dearly adore him and welcome the growing number of supporters, from among London's Iranian community, who have come to pay their respects.

Despite his cold-generated cough, the prince spoke enthusiastically for almost two hours about his vision of Iran and the progress of his campaign for democracy, which he discussed in an interview with The Middle East last year.

Commenting on what his mother Empress Farah Pahlavi, told London's Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat two days earlier -- that her son wants to return and serve his country like any ordinary citizen -- the Shah in, exile says the important thing is that the people of Iran are given the right to choose how they wish to be governed. Whether the future for Iran involves a republic or a constitutional monarchy, is not the issue at this time, he says. The first aim should be for the wishes of the Iranian people to be recorded in a free and fair election. "My mission in life, from the day I started 21 years ago, remains the same," said the man whom most Iranian liberals in exile, as well as an increasing number of Iranians at home, consider to be Iran's hope of salvation from what many describe as its current nightmare.

He outlines his vision for a comprehensive strategy to give the Iranian people freedom of choice and real democracy, in his book, Winds of Change: the Future of Democracy in Iran, published last month (Feb 2002) in Washington by Regency Publishing Inc., which he dedicates to the memory of all Iran's fallen heroes and patriots.

"My goal is to reach a stage where the Iranian people can go to a national referendum and vote with their conscience for their future. …