After living in the nation’s capital for several years I can tell you that it’s not a big deal to find yourself in the same room with some of the city’s power players. Just get the Boys Choir of Bentonville, Arkansas to confirm that you are the “Washington correspondent” for their newsletter, and you will probably be issued an official press pass, allowing you to attend briefings, hearings, think-tank discussions, and diplomatic receptions where you would have an opportunity to meet this undersecretary or that senator. But these encounters usually take place in formal settings where aides to the Big Shot ensure that you won’t get more than a phony smile and a few empty refrains.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the really cool thing in Washington is the unexpected encounter with the Powerful and Mighty, for example, when you notice that congressman and his wife (?) having a drink in a dark corner of the bar or when you run into the FBI director shopping for underwear at Bloomingdale’s.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a movie theater in Washington and in the row in front of me were Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell holding hands. Then there was that time I bumped into James Baker in an ice-cream parlor wearing shorts and eating frozen yogurt (vanilla). And then I had that chance encounter with Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

I ran into young Reza in the checkout line at Safeway while buying milk and grapefruit juice. It took me a few minutes to recognize His Imperial Majesty, whom I remembered from watching television in the late 1970s, when as a teenager Reza joined his terminally ill father in exile. I didn’t know whether I should bow in the presence of the pretender to the Iranian throne, but then he looked at my carton of milk and bottle of juice and said with that certain dignity only Real Royals project, “You have only two items. You should stand in the express line.”

That was a classy act. If only his dad had displayed those kind of leadership qualities when dealing with Khomeini. So you can imagine that since that moving encounter, I have had a soft spot for His Highness. But I didn’t think about Pahlavi Jr. until recently, when President Bush, the star of that Let’s-Remake-the-Middle-East reality show, turned his attention to Iran, ready to utter those two words that get the neocon juices flowing: “You’re Bombed!”

I’ve seen the name of the Virginia-based son of the last Shah mentioned in newspaper reports as the man that Bush administration officials regard as their most promising ally in the campaign to achieve the next regime change in the Middle East. Indeed, “united by the desire for regime change in Iran and encouraged by the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, exiled Iranian monarchists are developing an alliance in Washington with influential neo-conservatives as well as Pentagon officials and Israeli lobby groups,” reported Guy Dinmore and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in the Financial Times. In fact, supporters of my old check-out line acquaintance “see a role model [for Pahlavi] in Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress who is backed by powerful figures in the Pentagon as a future leader in Baghdad committed to a secular, pro-western democracy,” according to the FT. The piece was published a few months before Chalabi was accused of passing U.S. military secrets to Iranian agents and switched from being the darling of Douglas Feith and Richard Perle to a political ally of anti-American Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (I once encountered Chalabi washing his hands in the men’s room at the Cato Institute, but that took place in a formal setting and lacked that sense of surprise and intimacy that defined my Pahlavi-at-Safeway experience.)

To paraphrase Karl Marx and add a Yogi Berra touch, listening to what former fans of Chalabi are saying about Pahlavi reminds one that déjà vu repeats itself all over again, first as tragedy, second as farce. Michael Ledeen has described Pahlavi as “widely admired inside Iran, despite his refreshing lack of avidity for power or wealth,” while another AEI resident, Reuel Marc Gerecht, contends that there is a growing “nostalgia” for the Shah’s son inside Iran.

These kind of assessments were made with regard to Chalabi on the eve of regime change in Iraq: he was a member of a distinguished Shi’ite family who enjoyed strong support in the Old Country; he was a secular democrat and would help create a pro-American Iraq and would establish ties with Israel. And not unlike Chalabi, who succeeded in charming Congress and the media, thus winning huge stipends from the U.S. taxpayers, Pahlavi and a bunch of obscure and shadowy “pro-democracy” Iranian groups, television and radio stations, and websites are now at the receiving end of American welfare.

Hence, Sen. Sam Brownback has championed legislation that would channel millions to royalist radio and television stations that call for an uprising against the ayatollahs, while Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. John Cornyn have been pushing the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which calls on the administration to promote regime change in Iran and help fund the transition to democracy through organizations associated with Pahlavi. Hundreds of millions of dollars could end up in the hands of Chalabi-like Iranian figures and their shady American operators, giving them more financial resources to manipulate the American media and lobby Congress for even more funds. The result of such a massive PR effort—the formation of “pro-democracy” front-organizations in the form of think tanks and news outlets, the planting of disinformation in American and foreign media, the provision of financial and political backing to friendly lawmakers—would create political momentum for a military confrontation.

The same guys who convinced Americans to buy a broken camel from con man Chalabi are now trying to persuade them to purchase a used rug from Pahlavi. The heir to the Peacock Throne has been schmoozing around in Washington with the members of such outlets as the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (surprised to learn that Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Michael Ledeen are on its board of directors?), the Hudson Institute, AEI, and, well, you can guess the rest. The Persian Prince has also been the subject of admiring profiles in the American press, including the pro-war-but-now-having-second-thoughts New Republic, which noted that he has even “quietly met” with Israeli officials and complained that Pahlavi was getting a diplomatic cold shoulder from Colin Powell’s State Department.

But now that we are supposedly witnessing the coming of the democratic spring in the Middle East, one can expect that under Condoleezza Rice and her two assistants, Elizabeth Cheney (Middle East) and Karen Hughes (propaganda), warm thoughts will be emanating from Foggy Bottom in the direction of old “pro-democracy” outfits such as the Committee on the Present Danger and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as well as new ones like the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (yes, Woolsey and Perle are listed as “individuals expressing support”) and the Alliance for Democracy in Iran, which sources quoted by the FT’s Dinmore describe as an “opposition umbrella group that would act as a ‘clearing house’ for US taxpayers’ money dedicated to advancing the cause of democracy.” According to Dinmore, the latter is headed by Bahman Batmanghelidj (known as “Batman”), a real-estate dealer in Virginia who filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Rational-choice theory would probably have something to say about why Chalabi, “Batman,” and other failed Middle Eastern businessmen seem to gravitate towards U.S.-financed regime-change campaigns.

“To the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you,” Bush declared in his State of the Union address, a commitment reiterated by Rice during her recent European trip where she astonished a group of French policy analysts when she characterized the Iranian state as “totalitarian.” Cheney expressed on “Imus in the Morning” his concern with Iran’s “fairly robust nuclear program” and threatened to unleash Israeli military power against it. Bush similarly expressed his sympathy with Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear threat, leading Israeli columnist Uri Avnery to complain, “it is not very flattering to be paraded like a Rottweiler on a leash, whose master threatens to let him loose on his enemies.”

As occurred in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush, Cheney, Rice, and the neocon-backed nexus of propaganda outlets and exile groups have been promoting a campaign that utilizes a mix of truths, half-truths, gossip, and innuendo. The aim: proving to the world that Iran is pursuing an ambitious nuclear-weapons program that violates international arms-control accords and poses a threat to American interests and that the Iranian people are ready to welcome American liberators with flowers and candies. Unconfirmed “evidence” attributed to unnamed intelligence sources and exile groups is being circulated in the press together with reports about U.S. and Israeli plans to target the country’s nuclear sites. At the same time, U.S. officials insist that an attack on Iran is “not on the agenda at this point” and the European Union triumvirate (EU3) is being encouraged by Washington to negotiate an agreement with Tehran that would offer it incentives to … to do exactly what? To give up its nuclear military program? That is the spin that Bush has produced, but in reality what Washington is demanding is that Iran give up its ability to make nuclear material by enriching uranium to produce electric power—an activity that the current nuclear-arms regime permits Iran to pursue. Moreover, neither the CIA nor the International Atomic Energy Agency has come up with clear evidence that Iran has a secret project to build a nuclear bomb.

Former arms inspector David Kay, who admitted that “we were almost all wrong” about Iraq’s WMD activities, has concluded that the Bush administration’s actions on Iran have “an eerie similarity to the events preceding the Iraq war.” And why not do a rerun? That strategy worked when it came to softening America for war and proved politically cost-effective for its architects, if you just consider the Bush re-election and the rewards provided those who warned of WMD, Saddam-Osama links, and bungled the post-war occupation: Presidential Medals of Freedom, State Department, World Bank, UN ambassadorship.

Consider another “eerie similarity” between the conventional wisdom on the prospects of confrontation with Iran and the run-up to the Iraq War. Then we were led to believe that there was a heated debate inside the administration, that President Bush hadn’t made a definite decision to use military force, that the United States and the Europeans would use diplomatic power to press Baghdad, and that the UN and its inspectors would resolve the crisis. We now realize that these optimistic assessments were a product of disinformation by a White House that was intent on ousting Saddam Hussein through military power. So when leading American foreign-policy and military analysts—with the exception of The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh—conclude that an overstretched United States cannot afford another war in the Middle East, that foreign-policy establishment types are opposed to the idea, that Bush has decided to work together with the Europeans to deal with Iran, that the Bushies know that they would be totally isolated and couldn’t count even on British support if they decide to attack Iran, employ a healthy sense of skepticism.

If anything, the neocons are more entrenched in the power centers while the realists have been cleansed from the CIA and other government agencies. A bipartisan War Party is in control of Congress, and the media has been toeing its line. And forget also the notion of growing Euro-American co-operation. A friend of mine who works in the administration (I don’t have many of those) told me that the president returned from his trip to Europe steamed at the French and Germans for refusing to provide assistance in Iraq and has told his aides that notwithstanding the kiss-and-make-up photo ops, he is going to do it his way in the Middle East—including Iran. “Bush is not worried about the EU3 engaging the Iranians since he is counting on the Iranians to repeat the Saddam performance before the Iraq War, that they would reject compromises proposed by the Europeans and that the issue would then be brought before the Security Council where the U.S. would demand sanctions against Iran,” he said. And we know how that movie ended …

Indeed, from the perspective of Bush and the neocons, the U.S. has been at war with Iran since 1979 and the time has come to settle the score in the same way that we did with Iraq, bringing an end to the war that started in 1991. They hope that a pro-American government in Iran would not only return that country to the U.S. orbit but would also have a moderating influence on the Shi’ite communities in Iraq and Lebanon and help strengthen the foundations of Pax Americana in the Middle East.

The problem that the warriors in Washington could be facing is that the Iranian leaders are not as stupid as Saddam. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who will probably run for president in the coming election in June, is a cunning pistachio merchant who could outsmart the Americans and reach an accord with the Europeans, making it likely that I’ll continue to encounter Reza Pahlavi at Safeway. But don’t bet your Persian rug on that.

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Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author of the forthcoming book Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.