'The minute our country is free, all hostilities will cease'

In Israel, son of last shah says Iranians ‘absolutely’ ready for Israel ties

During emotional press conference in Tel Aviv, Reza Pahlavi says Israel and Iran can be ‘strategic partners’ and that majority of Iranians ‘think differently’ from regime

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Reza Pahlavi, oldest son of the last Shah of Iran, speaks to reporters in Tel Aviv, alongside Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, on April 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Reza Pahlavi, oldest son of the last Shah of Iran, speaks to reporters in Tel Aviv, alongside Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, on April 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Reza Pahlavi, prominent Iranian opposition leader and son of Iran’s deposed monarch, expressed the hope on Wednesday that Israel and Iran will return to being “strategic partners” as they were under his father’s rule — predicated on regime change that the exiled crown prince has long advocated for the Islamic Republic.

“I know that Iranians and Israelis see how important it will be for our future to be our strategic partners, to work together, to address many issues,” he said, in remarks in English, Farsi and French at a press conference in Tel Aviv on the third day of an unprecedented trip to Israel.

“I’ve come here to convey this message to Israeli citizens,” he added. He choked up with emotion after describing the “overwhelming” outpouring of support he has received from Israelis since arriving.

Distinguishing between the Iranian public and its militantly anti-Israel government, Pahlavi further said that Iranians are “absolutely, there is no question” ready for normalization with Israel.

“As far as the Iranian people are concerned, they are ecstatic, they are enthusiastic, they are happy that finally they are represented in a different light,” Pahlavi added, stressing that this is “something they’ve been dying to tell the world: We are not terrorists. The regime is. We are friends of any nation that respects our sovereignty and our right to freedom and democracy.”

A spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry dismissed the trip on Tuesday, telling reporters that “I don’t think there’s a need to respond [to Pahlavi], and there’s no reason to express an opinion from this stage.”

Reza Pahlavi, oldest son of the last Shah of Iran, speaks to reporters in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Pahlavi, the self-declared head of the Iranian government-in-exile and founder of exile opposition association the National Council of Iran, is the most high-profile Iranian to visit Israel.

Reza Pahlavi attends the official Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on April 17, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

On Monday and Tuesday, Pahlavi met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog, and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Western Wall. He is also expected to meet with Israeli companies focusing on water technology, as well as Israelis of Iranian origin.

Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, who is hosting Pahlavi, declined to share the content of the meetings with Netanyahu and Herzog, and wouldn’t say who initiated the visit.

Gamliel also refused to answer a question on whether Pahlavi’s visit indicates a shift toward Israel openly collaborating with the Iranian opposition, but stressed her hope that the trip could be a first step in imagining social and economic collaboration.

After friendly relations under Pahlavi’s father, Iran and Israel have had no diplomatic ties since the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamic Republic to power. The regime relentlessly advocates the elimination of Israel and is a state sponsor of terror against the Jewish state, through terrorist organization proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel has conducted several covert operations against Iran’s nuclear program, which it considers to be an existential threat.

Regime change

Based in Washington, DC, Pahlavi has long pushed for Iran to transition from an extremist, theologically led, human rights-transgressing regime to a democratic government. He said on Wednesday that the time may be especially right to exert pressure toward this change.

For months, Iranians held unprecedented protests against the ayatollah-led government, catalyzed by the September killing of a young woman in the custody of the country’s morality police, after she didn’t wear a mandatory headscarf.

“We see, that more and more, the people who once believed or insisted on trying to reform this regime no longer believe that and are now more in convergence with those of us who, from the very beginning, have been arguing for a secular, democratic alternative to a clerical regime,” Pahlavi said. He added that the regime is suffering a “complete loss of legitimacy,” especially since Mahsa Amini’s death and the protests it sparked.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

The opposition figure, who is generally careful to not advocate force, said he believes that mass labor strikes could bring about an end to the regime.

“This is a mechanism that will put tremendous pressure on the regime and force it to paralysis and collapse,” he said.

Democratic Iran

Pahlavi said that his goal is for Iran to choose its own leaders, and that he stands for Iranians’ right to the “ballot box,” just a day after the Islamic Republic’s leader dismissed the idea of holding a public referendum on policies.

“Where in the world is this done? Is it possible to hold a referendum for various issues of the country?” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a Dubai meeting with university students. “For any single issue, the country would be engaged in debate and arguments and polarization for six months, so that a referendum can be held on that issue.”

Khamenei was apparently referring to recent comments by former president Hassan Rouhani, who had raised the issue of holding referendums on domestic and foreign policies.

Pahlavi’s goal is to create a constitutional assembly by which Iranians can propose an alternative system of government, laws, and constitution, and then “go to the polls and by referendum ratify that proposed constitution.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, January 9, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The opposition leader said that democracy might open new horizons for Israeli-Iranian relations.

“It’s not just me, it’s millions of voiceless Iranians who feel the same emotions being in captivity, being in repression. And when we look at how successful Israel has been as perhaps the unique democracy in our region, imagine what a different Iran, not ruled by a religious dictatorship, but a secular, democratic Iran, could mean for our region, for stability and how it will impact the world positively, as opposed to all the negative impact that Iran under this regime has had, from the nuclear threat to spread of Islamic radicalism and support for terrorism.”

“It goes without saying,” he continued, “that we can all imagine how different the future could be when Iranians are finally liberated and can also enjoy the same freedoms, and work together with those who have achieved it, and how important this alliance and partnership could be to bring about change. And I’m again here to explore how can we cooperate in helping the Iranian people in their campaign for freedom.”

Reza Pahlavi, oldest son of the last Shah of Iran, with Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel at a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Nuclear program

Pahlavi reaffirmed his stance against returning to a nuclear deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, arguing that the regime “cannot be trusted” and has previously used released sanctions money to fund global terror proxies.

“I have never believed that any type of negotiation with this regime that cannot be trusted could be a guarantee, or, if you will, the safety mechanism on the gun. It has been, in my view, a waste of time. Investing in the alternative that the Iranian people represent is the quickest way to eliminate all threats. It’s not going to be a JCPOA 2.0 in my view,” he said in Tel Aviv.

Hezbollah fighters hold their group’s flags as they parade during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The 2015 accord has been largely moribund since the US under Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, leading Iran to stop adhering to many of its clauses.

The opposition leader demurred, however, when asked by The Times of Israel if a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would hamper the democratic movement he pushes.

“I am certain that no one wants conflict and military intervention because the solution is already in place,” Pahlavi said, again advocating regime change. His solution would be “letting the Iranian people liberate themselves from this regime, because the minute our country is free, all the hostilities will cease.”

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