The Iranian people will rise again. They will sweep out this faithless, lawless regime. We shall return to the golden age.
—Reza Pahlavi

The Kubbeh Palace in the Heliopolis section of Cairo is the perfect setting for a dream: a gilded 340-room mansion in the center of a tropical park filled with royal palms and jasmine. King Fuad, the father of Farouk, built it as one of his homes. Now it is used mainly to quarter visiting heads of state. Presidents Nixon and Ford have been among the palazzo's guests, and it was here, in its fitting grandeur, that the late Shah of Iran lived out his final days. Now the palace's only residents are the members of his family: ex-Empress Farah Diba, sons Reza and Ali Reza, daughters Farahnaz and Leila. They occupy only 15 rooms of the mansion, insulated from the world outside by an imposing series of courtyards and a massive security force.

There, six weeks ago, the late Shah's eldest son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, publicly announced his assumption of his father's title and responsibilities as monarch of Iran. The occasion was Reza's 20th birthday, and the fantasy-like backdrop was oddly appropriate. Exiled from his own country and shunned by most others, he was stepping out of his teens into a pageant of national and family history. The move was almost certainly bereft of practical meaning except that it thrust him into the direct line of fire of Iran's fanatical present regime. "I am doubtless taking a risk [though] certainly not a considerable one," he told correspondent Jean Desaunois for PEOPLE in his first interview since his father's death last July. "In any case, I neither can nor wish to shirk my responsibilities."

In the Pahlavi family, Reza's duty is clear. "The Shah personally invested Reza with his office," says his mother, Farah Diba. "I heard him say to Reza, 'One day, sooner or later, Iran will again find peace, freedom and prestige. You must devote yourself to that.' " But Reza II—named for his grandfather, a onetime army private who had himself proclaimed Shah in 1925—seems strangely cast as restorer of the monarchy. The product of a private education at the royal palace in Tehran, a year of pilot training with the U.S. Air Force and another year at Williams College (majoring in political science and French literature), he is now a student at the American University in Cairo. Although he conducts business at an impressive desk in his regal palace office, he readily admits his inexperience—and sometimes invokes it when confronted with controversial questions. Asked to comment on the politics of the Tehran leadership today, he defers: "At my age, is that not presumptuous?"

Nonetheless, the young man who now calls himself the Shah of Iran is convinced that he will one day sit on the Peacock Throne in Tehran like his father and grandfather before him. "All over the world, officers, intellectuals, politicians, students and soldiers condemned to exile have formed groups and committees and are working to bring peace and prosperity back to Iran," Reza says. "These groups are bound to the monarchical regime, even if they want certain changes in its structure." Authorities, in fact, doubt that Reza II inspires such loyalty among opponents of the Khomeini rule. The Shah's last prime minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar, is planning to form a government-in-exile in Paris; Reza II has no similar cabinet in Cairo. He looks to Bakhtiar for support, but his father's former minister has condemned those who have a "personal nostalgia for the Shah." Even Egyptian President Anwar Sadat—who with typical effusiveness has embraced Reza as "my son," and whose own son Gamal is one of Reza's most frequent companions at the discos of Cairo—still recognizes the government in Tehran.

Aware of the deep wounds that must be healed before he can resuscitate the dynasty, Reza has begun to distance himself somewhat from his father. "By nature men are different, even when they are united by filial ties," he says. "Being the son of a king is not enough to be able to reign. Monarchy must change." In that spirit he pledges himself to parliamentary democracy. "We do not ever have the right to deprive our country of the positive potential of the opposition," he says. "The government must change when opinions change. The king ensures continuity." He also vows that evidence against his father's associates would be investigated. "Politics is not sentimental," he shrugs. "Reasons of state must sometimes leave human relations aside." At the same time, he suggests there would be mercy for those whom he suspects of betraying the fallen Shah.

Still, Reza sees Iran's past and present very much as a Pahlavi, crediting his father with sincere motives for progress in Iran and criticizing him only for "not explaining his heartfelt plans for the country." The apparent intensity of feelings against the former Shah in Iran does not impress him. "It is well known that the masses are fickle and changeable," he says. "A few well-trained agitators can easily organize demonstrations that seem to have been spontaneous. To sway a crowd—in whatever direction—is easy."

His mother enthusiastically agrees. "I will be the youngest queen mother in the world," the 42-year-old ex-empress confidently predicts, and she is already mapping out a role for herself in her son's "responsive" monarchy: "I acquired a certain amount of experience in 20 years. If asked, I will give my opinion—though I won't take the initiative." There is perhaps one exception. "Iranian women have returned to the Middle Ages," she says. "They have lost their dignity and been forced to renounce rights gained after years of struggle."

Like any doting mother, Farah Diba is certain her boy will be good at his job; to prove it, she greets visitors with a pile of reports from his U.S. Air Force training officers attesting to his maturity and skills. "Reza is affectionate, he is honest, he is sincere, and he is conscious of his mission," she says.

Of that there is little doubt. After Iraq attacked his country, Reza volunteered to serve in the Iranian armed forces—an offer that has been stonily ignored. Most Iranian scholars in the world believe that his offer of service as monarch will ultimately meet a similar reception and that he is destined to be remembered—if he is remembered at all—as a king without a country.