Just Don't Call Him "King of Kings"

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The smartly dressed middle-aged man, looking a bit like a banker, charges past rows of salad dressing and diapers in the suburban Virginia Safeway, a plastic grocery basket swinging at his side. He scans the produce section until he finds what he has come for: turnips. He examines them one by one. "Too big means the root is too tough inside, too small you've got nothing left once it's peeled," the man explains as he fills up a plastic bag and twists it closed.

He is on a mission. In ancient Persian medical lore, turnips are just the thing for a cold, and Reza Pahlavi's daughter Noor, 10, has a stinking one. She would be Princess Noor if her grandfather, Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had not been exiled when the ayatullahs deposed him in 1979. At the time, her father was studying to be a fighter pilot in Texas, and he has lived in the U.S. for most of the years since, living off his remaining savings and working full time at his larger mission. These days the Crown Prince--as he is still known to many--is the most significant symbol of external opposition to the ayatullahs' rule.

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Pahlavi says he has no intention of re-establishing the monarchy, let alone adopting the titles that his father went by--King of Kings, Light of the Aryans. "It's not about the monarchy, it's not about me," he says, "but about the people of Iran and their right to self-determination." He has been saying that for 20 years, and for most of the time has been ignored by all but a few die-hard monarchists. But in the past few months, Pahlavi's message has started to resonate back home. During his father's reign, there was widespread loathing of the Shah's excesses. But the current regime has so alienated many reform-minded Iranians that Pahlavi, who lives outside Washington, has become a source of hope. From studios in Los Angeles, he makes regular broadcasts to Iran, which are watched avidly, though illegally, on satellite TV. In Iran, contact with Pahlavi is treated as a criminal offense. But in a land where people are used to seeing leaders slumped in their chairs, often unshaven and unkempt, his well-cut suits and boundless energy send a message. "Maybe he can't save Iran," says a Tehran housewife, "but at least he leaves us some dignity."

Pahlavi is getting a better hearing on Capitol Hill and on Washington's diplomatic circuit. Until recently his case was easy to dismiss. To Islamic conservatives in Iran, he is a nightmare, while to reformists, he poses the most serious threat of all--an alternative to their milder vision of the Islamic republic.

Since Sept. 11, Pahlavi's stature has increased in Tehran and Washington. Many Iranians reacted enviously to the fall of the Taliban and the liberation of Afghan life--especially for women. Some are impressed by the rehabilitation of Mohammed Zahir Shah, the exiled Afghan King, who plans to return soon to Kabul for the first time in 29 years. In a TV broadcast last October, Pahlavi urged Iranians to demonstrate peacefully after their country's qualifying games for the World Cup. But young people poured into the streets, chanting anti-regime slogans in a fierce show of discontent. In Tehran, taxi drivers ask U.S. visitors, "When is our turn?" Diplomats in Tehran say officials now consider his popularity a threat.

Pahlavi's reputation would be sullied if he shared the Shah's famously imperious manner and tastes. (At a 1971 celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian Empire, an entire ton of Iranian caviar was consumed.) So far, the Crown Prince has avoided being tainted with the family reputation. He drives a Jeep, wears a black plastic watch and says he plans to give up caviar. He can come across as a sort of Al Gore--earnest, consciously cerebral, techie. If the prospect of an Iranian Gore sounds grim, consider the alternatives--either before 1979 or after.