The slim, elegantly attired young man strides onto the stage of the Los Angeles Sports Arena to address a cheering throng of Iranian exiles. "In 10 years of despotism, Khomeini's regime has spilled the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iranians, caused wholesale destruction," he declares. "The critical stage of our struggle has started and shall conclude in victory!"

At a time when a bad review from the Ayatollah can be hazardous to one's health—as Salman Rushdie has learned—such a public statement by anyone would seem to be risky business. But this speaker is not just anyone. He is Reza Pahlavi, son of the Ayatollah's most despised enemy, the late Shah of Iran. What's more, Pahlavi calls himself the new Shah. The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking this guy must be nuts.

But eight years after his self-coronation, Pahlavi, 28, is being taken seriously, by friend and foe alike. He may not have a realistic chance to win back his father's throne from the forces of the Ayatollah, but he and his beautiful young wife, Yasmine, 19, are drawing crowds of Iranian expatriates from Morocco to Malibu. Despite the bloody legacy of the senior Shah's regime, with its infamous SAVAK secret police, the young Pahlavis are making a splash as self-described advocates of civil liberties for their native land.

After a tour of Britain and France, Pahlavi recently visited Los Angeles to address some of his 500,000 displaced countrymen, who make up the largest Iranian expatriate community in the world. More flexible than his father, young Reza met with women's groups, students, professors—even Communists. At the climax of his visit, he spoke to about 12,000 anti-Khomeini Iranians gathered in L.A. to mark the 10th anniversary of the overthrow of Pahlavi's father.

As always, the self-proclaimed Shah knew that he appeared at his peril, even with his bodyguards, 50 Iranian volunteers and 250 local police officers there to protect him. "Every year around the time of the anniversary of the revolution, I receive more threats [from the Ayatollah's followers] than usual." But Pahlavi is accustomed to living with a scimitar over his head, so he delivered his message without hesitation. As a democratic monarch, he said, he could be a catalyst, a symbol behind which all opponents of the Khomeini regime could unite. "My friends, this is not a time for divisive labels, monarchist or republican, left or right. The nation is indivisible." The crowd apparently agreed, cheering and waving flags of the Iranian monarchy.

Pahlavi's pursuit of power is all the more intriguing because no one can know better than he the peculiar limitations of life in a palace. Though he does not speak ill of his parents, the Shah and the Empress Farah Diba (who has homes in Paris and Greenwich, Conn.), it is clear that his relationship with them was rather distant. "We would try to catch 10 or 15 minutes a day with each other," he recalls. "When my father would return from his office, I would hang around while he read the newspaper or did his exercise."

Mostly, Reza was cared for by a French governess. "She was with me since my early years," he says. "She was very important to me since she was with me all the time, acting almost as a parent." She is now living in Paris, and he remains in touch with her.

Pahlavi also had a constant companion, a military man appointed by his father. "He had no official role other than to be the officer of the guard who was to accompany me," says Pahlavi. "It was the same person since I was born. He is still with me. His name is Ahmad Oveyssi. The relationship was never that of an officer of the guard with the Crown Prince. We developed a very close relationship. We are friends."

In a sense, Pahlavi was prepared for the isolation of exile by his isolation as son of the Shah. As Crown Prince he studied at the Reza Pahlavi School (a palace private school restricted to the royal family and imperial court associates), where he was captain of the soccer team. A childhood friend remembers a time when little Reza snuck out of the summer residence without his bodyguards so that he might, just once, mingle with the people at the bazaar, a scheme straight out of The Prince and the Pauper. Now Pahlavi wants to go home and play prince again.

"The fact is that I am physically apart from my country," he says. "And I have many restrictions due to security reasons. That does not mean that I feel isolated. I try to be spiritually in touch with my countrymen who are inside [Iran] as well as outside."

Outside, Pahlavi finds his strength in his wife of two years, Yasmine, whom he met in Washington, D.C., where he maintains an office. They now live, with three fierce guard dogs, somewhere in Virginia—the location is a secret from all but a few close friends who occasionally come by for dinner and TV. The daughter of a wealthy Iranian businessman in California, Yasmine is a political science student at American University who enjoys discussing politics with her husband. "Yasmine has been my greatest moral support," he says. "One often gets discouraged or frustrated, and she always has the right words to help me find my strength again."

Pahlavi clearly needed all the kind words he could get when his father was driven from Iran in 1979. "We were dealing with people with very strong propaganda, and a lot of it was against my father," says Reza. "Things that were said against my father that I knew were not true hurt me and humiliated me."

Even the Shah's friends acknowledged that he was a dictator; to his enemies, he was a merciless despot. But to his son, the Shah was a statesman. Young Reza recalls his father's "kindness, his generosity, his sense of forgiveness, a certain shyness. The last thing he would do is hurt anyone."

Many observers of the Iranian revolution blame SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, for creating the atmosphere of discontent in which revolt was inevitable. "All I have to say is that there was brutality," Pahlavi admits. "There was torture, and there were unjustified actions by some people. But that doesn't mean that it was a state policy in Iran to have torture or violence. You have police brutality in New York City, too, but that doesn't mean that President Bush should be held responsible for it."

Nor does Pahlavi believe his father should be criticized for his ostentatious displays of vast wealth. Particularly egregious was the $100 million orgy of conspicuous consumption to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Peacock Throne in 1971, at which 165 chefs were flown in from Paris to dish out a ton of caviar to the guests.

"I think this is a case of unfair criticism," says Reza. "The only fair criticism is that the Iranians did not participate sufficiently and maybe more things could have been done with our local products. Not all the money went into festivities; it also went into road and hotel construction. Seventy-five million dollars were spent on Hirohito's funeral, millions were spent on Prince Charles's wedding, millions more for Fourth of July celebrations in the United States. I don't see why Iran should be an exception. We were celebrating 2,500 years of history."

Though his version of history seems a shaky platform on which to build a new Iran, Pahlavi is also capable of articulating views progressive enough to throw Iran's hidebound mullahs into a snit. Given that he attended Williams College in New England and trained at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, and that Yasmine is a California girl, it's not surprising that in many respects they are a modern young American couple—starting at home in the kitchen. Yasmine, says the new Shah, "has tried to cook on several occasions but does not enjoy it." Pahlavi himself seems more at home at the range, specializing in his own combination of Oriental, Middle Eastern and European cuisine. (For the moment, at least, he cooks only for two; children are out of the question for now, say the Pahlavis, since their responsibilities to their country come first.)

Far from sounding like a benighted second-edition tyrant-in-waiting, Reza pronounces views that should stand him in good stead with beleaguered feminists in his native Iran. "In today's world we have seen that the role of women is fundamental to the progress of nations," says Pahlavi. "Why should we live with 50 percent of our potential when we can have 100 percent? Women have a tremendous role to play. The amount of what they have had to put up with, having been made the lowest of Iranians by the present regime and still being the strongest activists, proves their importance. I see them as equals and have said so to my countrymen."

Noble thoughts, slim rationalizations, elusive dreams: They are the stuff of Reza Pahlavi's monarchy in exile. Might he ever regain the power that belonged to his father? French sociologist Yan Richard, an expert on Iran, is one skeptic among many. "I think it is absolutely impossible," he says. "The greatest obstacle to the return of Reza Pahlavi is the very bad memories that his family left behind—memories of violence and corruption. That does not inspire confidence for the return of the dynasty."

In the meantime, Pahlavi, who denies that he is vastly wealthy, travels the world greeting crowds who seem to support his quixotic yearning to overturn the Islamic Republic. Strangers wish him well because they loathe the Ayatollah. And friends refuse to count him out. "He is a very bad loser," says one, who has observed him at the games of tennis and life. "He hates to lose."

—Pete Axthelm, Victoria Brynner in Los Angeles and Paris