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Friday, May 17, 2002

Iranians-in-exile mull return of the shah


BEVERLY HILLS, California -- These days the animated chatter in this storied city's sun-splashed cafes and deep-carpeted restaurants is not about the aftermath of 9/11, or the fall of Enron, or even the Middle East imbroglio. It's about the coming revolution in Iran.

The hot topic is not whether the Iranian monarchy will someday return to power -- it is widely assumed it will -- but whether Reza Pahlavi III, son of the late shah of Iran, deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, is a suitable heir to the throne.

This is no joke. The conversations are visceral, angry -- and plotting. No wonder: This is the U.S. headquarters of Iranians-in-exile. Home to more than 3,000 Iran-born citizens, Beverly Hills has the largest concentration of Iranians in the country. About half the student body in the high school is Iranian.

Very few Iranians here were happy to see the departure of Shah Pahlavi, as repressive as his regime was. Some had worked for him in cushy jobs; others had made fortunes under his regime. For Iranian women, the shah provided a sunburst of social equality. No mullah, representing a primitive, throwback system at odds with the shah's modernist approach, could get elected dogcatcher in Beverly Hills.

The shah's 41-year-old son officially resides in Virginia, but if he ever does make a comeback, he should do so from this sister city of Cannes, home to Hollywood stars and studio moguls. Talk about wealth: the high school, breeding ground for actors such as Robert Redford and Nicolas Cage, even has a live oil well on its grounds, pumping revenue.

In fact, there is probably more hard-cash liquidity here than in Argentina. So it won't be for lack of funds if no serious effort is made to depose the Islamic regime in Tehran. In Beverly Hills, where every other resident seems to own a Mercedes or BMW, even the live-in help -- the maids and baby-sitters -- tool around in late-model Volvos.

The ticklish topic of overthrow was raised anew with the downfall of the hated Taliban, viewed as clerical clones of the mullahs presiding over neighboring Iran. In Kabul, the triumphant return of 87-year-old Mohammad Zaher Shah after 29 years of exile in Rome prompted many Iranians here to dream of the day when the Pahlavi monarchy would also be restored.

"I was very jealous," an Iran-born Beverly Hills real estate agent told the Beverly Hills Weekly, a lively local paper. "I was wishing the same for my country. You don't know how much my family is wishing and waiting (for) the new revolution."

That enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Iranian community here is deeply divided on the key issue of whether Reza III is the man for the job. Half the community seems to believe he is the rightful heir, no matter what his political views. The bloodlines of the Peacock Throne, as the shah's secular, pro-U.S. regime used to be called, go back centuries.

But there's a hitch in the story line of "The Return of the Shah." The son doesn't want the part; he wants to transform his beloved Iran into a modern parliamentary democracy.

For many Iranians, the very idea is absurd. How can a monarch be a democrat? But the son's insistence on bringing democracy to his country causes many to doubt his suitability to dethrone the mullahs -- and re-establish the Pahlavi glory days.

If this well-heeled exile community ever does unite around the shah's son, it would be more than willing to give the Tehran government a violent push. Judging by the intense antifundamentalist feelings in Tehran West, the road to revolution begins in otherwise bucolic Beverly Hills. Call it the Rodeo Drive Counterrevolution.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.


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