Iranian Government Is Heading for 'Final Implosion' and Americans Must Help Overthrow the Regime, Shah's Son Says

Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last shah of Iran, has called on Americans and their representatives to help the Iranian people overthrow the regime in Tehran as its leaders grapple with anti-government protests.

Speaking at an event at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Pahlavi said the current unrest shows that the end is near for the 40-year theocracy.

Protests have erupted in Tehran and other major cities after Iran admitted downing Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 last week.

As first reported by Newsweek, the aircraft was shot down shortly after taking off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport, just hours after Iran launched a series of ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops.

Iranian troops were on high alert in case of an American response, and the operators of an anti-aircraft system just outside the capital mistook the passenger plane for an enemy aircraft.

Authorities initially said the plane went down due to technical failure, but U.S. and Canadian intelligence reports eventually forced Tehran to admit its soldiers were to blame.

Reports have indicated that Iran's Revolutionary Guard—responsible for the anti-aircraft site in question—may have tried to conceal the details of the incident from the country's civilian government led by President Hassan Rouhani.

"We are beginning to see the end of this regime," Pahlavi said. Footage of the protests shows demonstrators demanding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's resignation and tearing down posters mourning Soleimani.

"This is beyond salvaging," Pahlavi said, suggesting that only a "miracle" or "lifeline…in the form of foreign diplomacy and negotiation" can save the government. "I think the events have passed this regime," he said. "We are in the mode of a final implosion."

The regime in Tehran crushed a round of protests at the end of 2019, as Iranians voiced their anger at rising fuel prices. The Iranian economy has been struggling under the weight of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign after withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

Mass protests shut down cities across the country. In response, the regime throttled internet connection and ordered security forces to open fire on dissenters.

Unnamed regime officials told Reuters that some 1,500 people are believed to have been killed, a figure also cited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Another 7,000 are thought to have been detained, according to the United Nations.

The response to the current round of unrest has not been as violent, but Amnesty International reported that security forces fired pointed air gun pellets, rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse crowds.

Pahlavi called on Khamenei to "let go" and step down, allowing the people to "free themselves with the minimum amount of casualties." As to the risk of violent suppression, Pahlavi said, "There's not enough people they can kill to maintain this regime in power. They had better stand down and join with their brethren."

Pahlavi is the last surviving son and heir of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, deposed in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He perhaps the most influential voice in the Iranian diaspora, and he has consistently advocated for a secular democracy to replace the theocratic regime in Tehran.

Though he is a prominent advocate for democratic reform, his link to the period of political repression under imperial rule has tainted his pro-democracy efforts.

The pre-revolution shahs used a powerful secret police force to suppress dissent and fostered a culture of rampant corruption among top officials. Security forces routinely engaged in torture and executions of dissidents making the monarchy widely unpopular. Throughout, the U.S. supported the imperial regime.

But Pahlavi said Wednesday, "It's not about me, it's about the people of Iran." While he acknowledged that some people "may not like the messenger," he asked his critics to instead focus on the message. "There will be plenty of time to debate our differences in a democratic atmosphere."

Pahlavi said he has long been working with people inside and outside of Iran who can help create a blueprint for the country's democratization, though acknowledged international fears that the regime's collapse could produce a destabilizing power vacuum in the region.

"The issue is not just to get rid of this regime, but to also have an alternative in mind," he said. A major obstacle to regime change in Iran is the lack of a viable opposition. Pahlavi called on Iranians watching to begin formulating political parties and agendas to help his desired transition to a genuine democracy.

But to succeed, Pahlavi said Iranian dissenters need international support, particularly from the U.S. This means bypassing the regime—while refusing any new negotiations on a fresh nuclear deal or anything else—and engaging with the people to see what they need to prevail. This will require "more than just moral support," Pahlavi added.

"This regime cannot be reformed and must be removed," he said. "Diplomacy has failed and nobody wants war. So the only alternative is to help the people, because they are the solution."

American lawmakers must "bring in the 'X factor'" of the Iranian people, he argued. "Have a dialogue with the representatives of the Iranian people of the secular democratic forces, have them be offering you the ways that they can help themselves achieve that freedom.… We are part of the solution."

"History has shown us that regimes don't survive but peoples are eternal.… You can't stop the people, you can only help them. This is what it all boils down to," Pahlavi said.

If the international message is "loud and clear," he continued, those in the powerful and loyalist military establishment will begin to defect.

Polls conducted during the recent crisis with Iran showed an American aversion to war with Iran. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere under the banner of the "War on Terror" has left Americans weary of fighting and wary of new, bloody, costly and long-running entanglements.

Pahlavi said Wednesday that Iranians are not asking for direct American military intervention to help them topple the regime. "They're not asking you to make the choice, they're asking you for support," he said.

"All we need to know is that you're on the right side of the equation," he added, "the people are doing the job. It's not going to be American forces."

The U.S. is heading into a presidential election later this year, one expected to be the most divisive and bitterly fought in living memory. Both the Republicans and the Democrats have used recent events in Iraq and Iran to score domestic points, but Pahlavi urged lawmakers from the two main parties to establish a bipartisan pro-democracy stance on Iran.

Pahlavi—who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years—noted that American politics is more divided than he has ever seen. Regardless, he warned that Iranians cannot afford to get caught up in American polarization.

"We want Democrats and Republicans in America to realize that we, the Iranian people, demand the same freedoms and the same rights as you," he said. "Regardless of what domestic argument you have, do not let that affect your unconditional support to our cause."

Iran, Reza Pahlavi, protests, democracy, regime, plane
An Iranian man confronts riot police during a demonstration outside Tehran's Amir Kabir University on January 11. Reza Pahlavi says, "History has shown us that regimes don't survive but peoples are eternal.… You can't stop the people, you can only help them." -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts