Among the many Iranians watching the country’s political turmoil from exile is the former empress of Iran. Farah Pahlavi, now 71, left Iran in 1979 with her husband, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and their four children, as millions took to the streets to protest the monarchy. The shah’s government —considered a U.S. puppet by its critics and blamed for extravagance, brutality and economic programs that that sparked shortages and inflation — was ultimately replaced by an Islamic state ruled by fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The shah died of cancer in Cairo in 1980. Farah Pahlavi, who splits her time between the United States and France, spoke to msnbc.com’s Kari Huus from Paris.
Question: You’ve been living in exile for a long time now. What is it like watching Iran’s politics from a distance, and were you surprised by the current wave of dissent and opposition?
Answer: You know I have been outside of my country now for 30 years, but I have always followed what was happening in Iran. My whole day is in connection with Iran and Iranians all these years. And what is happening today—we were hoping that one day it would happen in spite of the dictatorship of the theocracy. I believe that people have realized after 30 years, and they have hated this regime. … Iran is a country that is rich in natural wealth and human wealth. And when they see that the situation in Iran, economically is a disaster—30 percent of the population is below the level of poverty.
Q: This current surge in political unrest following the elections—did you expect this?
A: We didn’t expect it this way. And I believe this is really beyond the elections. I believe that in their hearts they want freedom, they want democracy, they want modernity, and they want … human rights. They don’t want the representative theocracy that is representative of God on Earth.
Q: People have compared these demonstrations in Tehran to the ones that ultimately led to the downfall of the government and monarchy in your husband’s time. There was frustration with corruption and the lavish lifestyle of the upper class. How do you think the two events compare?
A: It doesn’t compare so much in the way that in those days it was the Cold War and there were different ideologies. People started to talk about more political participation -- more democracy -- and it turned out to be religious slogans in the end. Many of the opposition (politicians) then thought that if the shah leaves, they will take power. Unfortunately what happened in Iran was a disaster of mythological dimension. It was a mistake for Iran, Iranians, the Middle East and most of the world because the religious fanaticism spread in most of the Muslim countries.
And there is another thing that cannot be compared. My husband was not the same kind of people as these people in power. Because he said I don’t want to keep my throne over the bloodshed of my people. And these people, in the name of religion, they don’t care about shedding blood.
Q: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech, which declared a definitive victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, seemed very uncompromising. What happens now?
A: In the speech … he is blaming some of the killing and some of the repression on the people out in the street, although they are very peaceful. And what happens is their own people are doing this that are burning or destroying things. And he blames all the problems of Iran on foreigners.
Q: To be clear, you think the speech was a precursor to a crackdown?
A: Even before this movement, we were worried about a crackdown of the Guardians of the Revolution, who have become tremendously rich. One encouraging thing is that some religious people have joined this movement and some of them have been arrested and they are under house arrest. So it won’t be as easy as they think (to halt the movement.) It is not only the young people in Tehran. There are people out all over Iran, in different parts of Iran — there are fathers and mothers and peasants and workers and intellectuals, all sorts of people because they have suffered in the last 30 years.
Q: The White House has been cautious in its approach to the situation in Iran, how to deal with it, what messages to send. What would you advise President Obama to say or do, if you could?
A: I think what President Obama has said during all these events was diplomatic, pragmatic and wise. He said he believes of course in the values that you have in the USA, of freedom and human rights, and he supported the peaceful movement of these people — that peacefully want their voices heard — without interfering the election or in the government. But he mentioned the values he believes in and I think that is wise.
Q: You’re the subject of a new HBO documentary, “The Queen and I.” What do you think of its portrayal of you, your husband, and your role in Iran’s history?
A: I think the most important message of this documentary was at the end — that we have to put our differences aside and our past differences, and think of Iran today and the future of the Iranians. I’m happy to say that most of the exiled Iranians who are demonstrating all over the world are doing this, which is admirable and encouraging and amazing for me because they are out there without any political ideology, just for the support of the peaceful voices of the Iranian people.
Farah Pahlavi says would assist the Iranian opposition movement any way she can, with the aim of aiding democracy in Iran and ushering out the Islamic theocracy. Her son, Reza Cyrus Pahlavi who would have been the successor to the shah had the monarchy continued, has also been speaking out from his home in Washington, D.C. On Monday he spoke at the National Press Club in the capital, urging the press to keep the focus on the unfolding political situation in Iran. And he warned of dire consequences if the current popular uprising is crushed.
“At worst, fanatical tyrants who know that the future is against them may end their present course on their terms, a nuclear holocaust," said Pahlavi. "But which will it be? That is the question of the day.”