A Shah-in-Training Learns About Air Force Tradition and Sweet Texas Accents
Are you having a good time? Can I get you anything?” asks the young man in the white safari suit, offering drinks and hors d’oeuvres above the blare of the stereo. “No, dear—in a minute,” murmurs one of the guests, apparently mistaking her host for one of the help. Gracious as always, 17-year-old Reza Pahlavi, crown prince of Iran and future Light of the Aryans, smiles courteously and drifts off through the crowd. “In Iran I have to be treated like a crown prince,” he noted later. “Myself, I would like to be treated in a simple way.”
Since his arrival in Lubbock, Texas in July, young Reza, elder son of the Shah of Iran and heir to his country’s 2,500-year-old Peacock Throne, has had his wish granted in full. As one of 43 cadet pilots now in training at Reese Air Force Base, His Imperial Highness answers 6 o’clock roll calls each weekday morning, follows a spit-and-polish program of drills and instruction, and retires to Spartan bachelor quarters on the base in the evening. With his fellow cadets he shares both Air Force regimen and traditional rites of passage—including an obligatory toss in the dunking pool after his first solo flight at the base. “He’s polishing his own shoes and cleaning up his own room,” says one palace aide in Tehran. “I can tell you, the Shah is delighted.”
On weekends, however, Reza’s quarters are a tad more princely than those of his fellow cadets. Home is a plush four-bedroom, three-bath ranch-style spread purchased by the Iranian government for $265,000 in cash. Secluded behind a four-foot stone wall and dense shrubbery, the royal dwelling features a sunken living room, formal dining quarters and a well-equipped stereo room. Hanging on the wall is a picture of Reza and the Shah wearing a head-to-toe collection of medals and decorations. Outside, an artificial waterfall splashes into a swimming pool. In the driveway a pair of Persian-carpeted Lincoln Continentals and a red-and-black Jaguar wait at the crown prince’s pleasure. American and Iranian security guards stand a 24-hour watch.
To Reza, the house has been more than a place for relaxing and partying; it has been a refuge from trouble at home. Back in Iran, rioting by traditionalist Muslims and other opponents of the Pahlavi regime has led to more than 1,000 deaths so far this year and has triggered demonstrations by Iranian students in many U.S. cities, including Lubbock. As a result Reza no longer turns up at local discos with stony-faced Iranian secret police—and starry-eyed waitresses wait in vain for the $50 tips of which his legend is made. The prince, however, expresses no bitterness. “These people,” he says of the demonstrators, “have to understand that if they don’t like their country, the thing to do is study and then get back there and help their country in different ways. What they are doing now is just wasting their time. I don’t know why they have to hide themselves and put masks on their faces. I hope to help them understand. I say, ‘Come to me and talk.’ ”
Talking to the prince, though, isn’t always easy. Air Force personnel at Reese protect his privacy on the ground and in the air—even sending chase planes aloft to follow along while he is flying. Until now Reza has granted only one interview since arriving in Texas, and that to a 19-year-old summer intern at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The reporter, Debbie Mitchell, a freshman journalism student at Southern Methodist University, managed to white-lie her way past Reza’s guards by posing as a “people-to-people ambassador” who wanted to welcome the prince. “I admit I put on my thickest Texas accent,” she recalls. “I was scared to death. But he was very natural and so mature that I felt he was five years older than me.” Did the prince have a girlfriend at home? Debbie asked. Well, yes, he said, but of course he wouldn’t be returning to Iran for a year. “Looking back on it,” says Debbie with a laugh, “I think he was afraid I was after him, because when I asked if his father would select his wife for him, he said no, he would do that. Then he added, ‘But of course she must be Iranian.’ ” (One of the prince’s favorite dates at the moment, however, is a blond, blue-eyed Swedish model he met in Rome.)
Debbie’s questions ranged from how she should address him (“Call me Reza, that’s my name”) to his views on religion. “I believe I have a working relationship with God, but not in the same way that my father believes in divine guidance for himself.” At another point, the prince observed frankly, “I don’t say my father doesn’t make mistakes.” Debbie came back that evening for a party and got a kiss on both cheeks.
Reza’s sense of duty is part of his upbringing, since he has been groomed all his life to be Shah. His training began early, with strict tutoring by royal instructors. At age 10 he was moved out of the palace and into his own apartment to minimize the softening influence of his mother and sisters. Always fascinated by planes, Prince Reza made his first solo flight in a single-engine Beechcraft at 11. He studied at a private palace school in Tehran where he captained the soccer team. His purpose in coming to Texas is to sharpen his skills as a jet fighter pilot. (At 17, he is of course several years younger than the American cadets, who are all college graduates.)
Since the ominous rioting began in his homeland, Reza has spent much of his off-duty time listening to disco music in his stereo room or practicing on his drums. “He seems very well adapted to life,” says one visitor to the prince’s Lubbock palace. “He doesn’t run around shouting like most 17-year-olds.” In fact, Reza’s voice is carefully muted in public, though he realizes he must someday speak out. “Journalists are always after me, everywhere,” he says with a sigh, “but it is not, as you say, a pain. I’m really glad they are interested in what I’m doing. It is very important for people to know me, and for me to know them. Someday we will have to work together.”
Someday, of course, could come sooner than he expects. Though the Shah reportedly has vowed not to surrender his throne until Reza turns 28, some analysts foresee an earlier abdication if opposition to his regime continues to mount. Does Reza regret his role as prince and successor? “Yes, lots of times,” he admitted to Debbie Mitchell. “But I realize now I can be very helpful to my country. What I’m trying to do now is learn enough to do that.”