On the evening of May 6, a capacity crowd of over 400 gathered in Crystal Cove auditorium to hear Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s deposed Shah Pahlavi, talk on “Iran-U.S. Relations at a New Cross Road.”
A live feed of the event was set up in Emerald Bay A to accommodate Pahlavi’s request that the doors be sealed once he began speaking.
Pahlavi, a presence on the lecture circuit, last spoke at UC Irvine in 2001. His visit, which included a series of events culminating in the evening lecture, was brought about by the Middle Eastern Studies Student Initiative (MESSI), and sponsored by UCI’s Department of Political Science and the Center for the Study of Democracy.
Sally Mouakkad, a fourth-year political science major, serves as the president of MESSI, a student initiative that seeks to establish a multi-disciplinary Middle Eastern studies major here at UCI. Mouakkad explained that Pahlavi’s lecture was important.
“[Even though] we learn about all these different cultures in school, I never got to learn about mine. That is why I strongly believe in the necessity of a Middle East major on campus and events like this that expose the Middle East to the campus,” Mouakkad said.
Sitting in the audience with several family members, Monir Taheri, an Irvine resident expressed her desire for Iran to be a true democracy. She hoped that Pahlavi would be able to unite the opposition against the current regime.
“I like him, I respect him, I like his father and his grandfather … [However I don’t] want him to be Your Majesty … I know that he is not looking to be king. I know there are a lot of people who want him to be king, but I wish he came today and told the audience that he won’t be king,” Taheri said.
The audience, composed largely of Iranian expatriates like Taheri, gave Pahlavi the first of several standing ovations as he walked on stage.
Chris Cialeo, a third-year political science and sociology double major, was surprised by the enthusiasm of the audience.
“As a student without any cultural ties to Iran, I found it very interesting to see how much widespread support Mr. Pahlavi has earned from the Persian-American community,” Cialeo said.
After some technical difficulties with the sound system were resolved, Pahlavi began by remarking on the repression Iranian students faced.
“A good university where one can study in peace and freedom may seem [a] common place to you,” Cialeo said, “but not so for many thousands of students in my homeland whose eager young minds remain constrained and constantly shackled by a closed and dogmatic atmosphere that has been ruthlessly imposed on them by an unpopular dictatorship.”
He called their refusal to accept the confines imposed by the Islamist regime “a source of great inspiration across Iranian society … a major impetus behind the kind of similar demands that are now being made by Iranian women, labor unions and ethnic groups throughout the country.”
“[The] clerical regime has done nothing in the last 30 years to safeguard or enhance the welfare, peace of mind and the prosperity of the Iranian people, despite having had access to more than $800 billion of oil revenues,” Pahlavi said.
He accused the administration of using “senseless sloganeering and ranting” to cover up its increasing unpopularity.
“The initial euphoria that had come about in the aftermath of the revolution started giving way to a more sober understanding of realities at home,” Pahlavi said.
Iran’s bloody war against Iraq, which lasted through much of the 1980s, was a powerful point Pahlavi touched on.
“[The war was] a vehicle for consolidating fundamentalist rule across the country and brutally crushing every trace of opposition,” Pahlavi said.
In the second half of the speech, Pahlavi turned his attention to Iran’s relationship with the United States. Despite President Barack Obama’s personal prestige and popularity, Pahloavi cautioned that it would be “foolish to think that a serious breakthrough can be achieved.”
After all, he noted that the United States’ hostile attitude with Iran has impacted the Iranian state’s ruling doctrine beginning with the Iranian hostage crisis.
“[The same] factors that have exacerbated Iran-U.S. relations in the course of the past 30 years [have not disappeared],” Pahlavi said.
Likewise, Pahlavi stated that the Obama administration would have a difficult time changing this trend, but that it is possible to expand discussion.
“[It is] possible that the Islamic leadership will respond to a call for engagement in order to gain the moral legitimacy,” Pahlavi said.
However Pahlavi stated that this does not equate a willingness to change Iran’s policy on key issues like its nuclear weapons program.
While Pahlavi supported Obama’s move toward dialogue, he expressed concern that the exchange could not affect any real change.
“[I fear that] millions of nameless freedom-loving Iranians who are the West’s only real natural friends and allies in [Iran will bear the] … brunt of any mishap,” Pahlavi said.
Instead, he called for Americans and the world to draw on their memory.
“[It is] the people and not their ruthless government that needs to be assured of this understanding. It is they who need your support and solidarity, and not their oppressive government,” Pahlavi said.
Policies that strengthen the voices of Iranian people are the only way to affect change in Iran. To end his speech, Pahlavi asked the audience to “let the youth of Iran know that they are not alone, that you have heard their cry for freedom.”