The Fiasco of Iranian Diaspora Politics

Published by New Lines

Iranians today, both in Iran and across the diaspora, are reckoning with two intricately related questions: How has the Islamic Republic survived, and why did the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, despite all of its momentous and meaningful achievements, fail?

These questions have become even more salient and urgent as the regime’s reckless foreign policy threatens the country with a war with Israel that most Iranians neither want nor can afford. Moreover, the Islamic Republic is aiming to use its current war footing to usher in a new assault on Iranian civil society. On the very same day (April 13) that the Islamic Republic rained drones and missiles on Israel, the regime intensified its already extensive crackdown on Iranian women. Dozens of women have been thrown into vans around the country for not observing the compulsory hijab law.

On social media, those who have so much as expressed concern about the prospect of a new war are being threatened with prosecution by regime-linked outlets. In an official statement, regime bodies have asked for “pro-Israel” posts on social media to be reported to the authorities. Even well-known, mild critics of the regime, some of whom have spoken to New Lines, have been warned in phone calls from the authorities that they should stop posting online or face the consequences.

The present crisis provides an occasion to look back at the Woman, Life, Freedom movement that emerged in 2022 and ask: Why and how did it fail to achieve its objectives?

Iranians are no strangers to street protests. Indeed, the Islamic Republic fended off mass movements in 2009-10, 2017-18 and 2019-20, killing hundreds and arresting thousands in the process. But the 2022 Woman, Life, Freedom uprising represented the most serious challenge to the regime’s rule since its birth in 1979. It arguably had the largest geographical and demographic expanse of any uprising in the Islamic Republic’s history. It included a cross section of Iranian society: not only university students but also high school girls, working-class protesters who went on solidarity strikes and ordinary Iranians of all stripes. More than 80 cities saw significant protests and arrests were made in more than 130 cities.

The uprising also enjoyed means of outreach that other revolutionary movements could only dream of. Iran International, a TV channel based in London and funded by Saudi Arabia, quickly emerged as a loudspeaker for the protest movement, with a role similar to the one Al Jazeera played in the early stages of the Arab Spring in 2011. It gave a platform to the opposition and ran fiery coverage of what it called “the revolutionary uprising.” Other broadcasters funded by the U.S., U.K. and European countries helped break the wall of censorship the regime had tried to impose on Iran.

All of these factors inspired hope among many Iranians that this movement would lead to the toppling of the Islamic Republic. Graffiti and protesters’ chants proclaimed, “Don’t call this a protest — this is a revolution.” But how exactly could the regime be overthrown, and what could replace it?

Some regime leaders simply give up and run for their lives when faced with widespread protests. This was the fate of Arab dictators who fell in 2011, such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Others make significant concessions to maintain their rule, while a third group, like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, are ready to use as much violence as necessary to stay in power. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has long shown that he belongs to this latter camp. A committed ideological revolutionary, Khamenei has never given an inch when faced with previous rounds of mass protest. He has instead dug in his heels and killed as many people as necessary to retain his grip on the country.

If the movement were to succeed, it thus had to find a political leadership organized and popular enough to take on a determined regime. Would such a force emerge?

Political alternatives often surface from inside political establishments. In theory, the Islamic Republic’s so-called reformist faction, a half-tolerated loyal opposition, could have played such a role.

As the Woman, Life, Freedom movement erupted in 2022, some reformist figures asked for limited changes, such as lifting the compulsory hijab law. But their cautious politics over the past two decades had left them without a discernible social base to help back up even these meager demands. As recently as the 2010s, pronouncements by reformist former President Mohammad Khatami (in office from 1997 to 2005) carried real weight in Iranian politics. This time around, his interviews hardly made news headlines. The reformists were simply irrelevant. To make a gesture toward dialogue in the aftermath of the protests, the regime organized a series of meetings between Ali Shamkhani, then the regime’s national security adviser, and Azar Mansouri, head of the Iranian Reformist Front and a pioneering female party leader.

But when, on Dec. 8, 2022, Mohsen Shekari, a 22-year-old protester, was executed by the regime, Mansouri declared that she wouldn’t show up anymore. She had previously used the meetings to call for changes in the Iranian Constitution, yet the regime had refused to make even the slightest of concessions.

Staging oppositional politics from inside the Islamic Republic seemed increasingly futile. The loyal reformists had nothing to show for their efforts. Meanwhile, the prisons were filled with more radical reformists such as Mostafa Tajzadeh, a deputy interior minister under Khatami who now advocated abolition of the supreme leader’s position and its replacement with an elected head of state, and Faezeh Hashemi, once a leading member of Parliament and daughter of one of the regime’s founding fathers, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has publicly called on Khamenei to resign.

Joining them behind bars were civil society figures with leadership potential: people like Bahareh Hedayat, a leading student activist and feminist; Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2023; Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer representing political prisoners; Esmail Bakhshi and Reza Shahabi, trade unionists; and Sepideh Qolian, a labor journalist. Each of them had the capacity to organize many of their fellow Iranians. But there was only so much they could do from prison.

If all options for organizing effective political leadership seemed blocked inside Iran, was there any chance for such a leadership to emerge from those based outside the country?

The 2022 movement offered a golden opportunity for the opposition abroad. Millions of Iranians have left the country in recent years, now forming a diaspora across the world, representing a huge pool of talent, wealth and potential organizational capacity. The Woman, Life, Freedom movement inspired tens of thousands of such Iranians, who came out in rallies across the world. Could this energy be channeled into effective political organizing?

In the best-case scenario, such an organization should have been prepared before the movement began. Tens of thousands of Iranians who supported the 2009 Green Movement left Iran following that movement’s defeat; they could have helped build the necessary political organizations. But no such effort was made. Hundreds of Iranians abroad pursued careers in human rights, journalism, law or academia, but very few got involved with organized Iranian diaspora politics. The alphabet soup of political organizations based abroad (the socialist Left Party of Iran and the liberal-democratic Constitutionalist Party of Iran, for instance) have remained small affairs, at most consisting of a few dozen people, mostly veterans of the 1979 generation who are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

The only exception to this is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, also known as MEK, an acronym for its Persian name), which currently runs a massive base in Albania and has significant financial and organizational prowess. The organization, however, is a deranged cult and is hated by many Iranians, not least because it supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. In fact, much of its financial power today still stems from the Iraqi dictator’s generous funding during his long years in power.

Instead of engaging in organized politics, large numbers of Iranians abroad took part in performative actions on social media. Mimicking an ancient Iranian rite of mourning, they cut their hair and posted videos online. They organized symbolic bike rides and posted numerous pictures with solidarity T-shirts. But while these actions signaled pride in their identity, they were politically useless.

Many were under the influence of widespread notions that celebrated the “horizontalism” of the protests and eschewed the need for political organizations. That is, some seemed to believe that hashtags alone could change the world. Even when politically themed events or rallies were organized, they were never followed up with serious, durable, organized political work. A thoughtful Iranian blogger, Ali Terrenoire, put it best (if a bit harshly) in November 2022:

Rather than using the safety of the diaspora to undertake the valuable task of building opposition parties, [Iranians abroad] have abdicated any historical responsibility in favor of building para-social relationships with celebrities posting Instagram stories about Iran. Rather than engendering serious political work, the Iranian struggle has simply empowered an identitarian cudgel for virtue signaling.

Perhaps the only serious form of organized political work in relation to Iran took place within Washington, D.C.-based organizations such as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), which respectively advocate for diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic and furthering sanctions on the regime, while both also offered verbal support to the protests. But despite their opposing goals, what NIAC and NUFDI have in common is their focus on U.S. policy, rather than Iranian politics.

Despite the failures of the past, the 2022 movement energized Iranians all around the country and inspired hope that perhaps a new political effort could get off the ground. There was an unprecedented push, including from inside Iran, for an “etelaaf,” or coalition of the opposition. In the absence of serious political organizations, these hopes were largely placed on the most visible and high-profile, anti-regime activists.

By far the best-known among these was Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled before the monarchy was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. Instant name recognition gives him an obvious political benefit but also creates a hurdle: His association with the autocratic rule of his father and grandfather means that many Iranians who lean toward democracy have a natural antipathy toward him. Many others, however, admire the achievements of the Pahlavi dynasty or simply believe that, whatever its failings, the Iran of the Pahlavi era was better than the crisis-ridden Iran of the Islamic Republic.

Pahlavi himself had previously surprised many by adopting a broadly liberal-democratic politics while criticizing aspects of his father’s rule, such as the torture undertaken during his reign. Still, he has long suffered from a contradiction: In his own public pronouncements he calls for compromise, inclusive rule and respect for human rights. He has praised figures as diverse as Sotoudeh; Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, the deputy supreme leader under Khomeini and his heir apparent who later became a critic of the regime, famously describing it as “neither Islamic nor a Republic”; and Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, Iran’s top Sunni cleric and a popular political leader among the Baloch ethnic minority.

But many of Pahlavi’s key advisers and supporters cut a very different figure, brandishing aggressive, chauvinistic, exclusionary and ultranationalist politics that could be classified as far-right. These include the young Amir Hossein Etemadi, perhaps Pahlavi’s closest adviser, and his wife, Yasmine Pahlavi. Some such supporters openly praise the SAVAK, the shah’s secret police that was infamous for torture, and reserve much of their ire not for the Islamic Republic but for its leftist and ex-reformist critics. This gap between Pahlavi’s rhetoric and that of some of his closest associates is one reason all his previous attempts failed to create a durable organization.

But in the new political atmosphere, there was hope that Pahlavi could bridge this gap by joining others in forming a more inclusive political front. Becoming a regular on Iran International and other outlets, Pahlavi gained in visibility and popularity. Some political prisoners in Iran openly supported him and his name was shouted at several demonstrations inside the country. (Others shouted slogans against him.) A petition in his support was signed by 300,000 people.

Other well-known opponents of the regime included Masih Alinejad, a New York-based journalist who is among the most influential diaspora activists in recent history. Calling on Iranian women to share their hijab-free images online, Alinejad’s campaigns have engaged tens of thousands of Iranian women and led to the regime passing laws explicitly aimed at criminalizing any contact with her. According to U.S. authorities, regime goons have also attempted to kill or kidnap her on American soil. Her flashy online activism and brash style have made Alinejad controversial. Her choice of allies and interlocutors also raised eyebrows. Many didn’t like it, for example, when she met with Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, in 2019.

Another leading figure was Hamed Esmaeilion, an Iranian-Canadian dentist and writer who has won Iran’s prestigious Hooshang Golshiri award twice, for his novels “Avishan Is Not Pretty” (2009) and “Dr. Datis” (2012). Prior to Jan. 8, 2020, Esmaeilion had been known as a major novelist of the post-1979 generation. But an event on that day changed his life forever. His wife and daughter were among the passengers on PS752, a Tehran-Kyiv flight that was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, killing all 176 onboard, including Esmaeilion’s nuclear family. He then dedicated his life to pursuing justice against the regime, earning the respect of many Iranians in the process.

Iranian artists and athletes were among the other high-profile supporters of the opposition. Ali Karimi, a former Bayern Munich star, declared support for Pahlavi and used his online platform as a hub for the opposition. Another leading figure was actor Nazanin Boniadi. Known to many in the West for her roles in soap operas such as “General Hospital” and series such as “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” Boniadi had also long worked with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

As the Woman, Life, Freedom movement developed in Iran, these figures grew in stature. Pahlavi took trips to various European countries, courting support from Iranians and engaging in dialogue with European politicians. Esmaeilion helped organize two massive days of action in October 2022 — one was centered in Toronto, where 50,000 came out, while simultaneous rallies were organized in more than 100 cities around the world. Iranians took buses from around Europe to Berlin to attend one huge rally. With estimates of participants ranging from 80,000 to 100,000, the Berlin rally was known as the biggest gathering hitherto of the Iranian opposition abroad. Boniadi joined human rights activists such as Gissou Nia and Nazanin Nour by playing a leading role in the campaign that succeeded in getting the Islamic Republic booted out of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in December 2022.

But what if these figures, each representing a variety of political opinions, came together to form a united front against the regime?

This demand was increasingly voiced by many Iranians. Secret meetings between some of these figures began to occur, and what many had waited for finally took place: A conference held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 10, 2023, brought together Pahlavi, Alinejad, Esmaeilion and Boniadi. Karimi joined via video link, as did Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, actor Golshifteh Farahani and Abdullah Mohtadi, leader of the left-wing Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, an observer party of the Socialist International.

The image of some of the best-known opponents of the regime locking hands for the world’s cameras was striking. The “Georgetown Coalition” declared that in less than a month it would publish a charter of shared demands. The ground seemed to be prepared for unprecedented opposition unity. The promise of that moment was visible days after the Georgetown meeting: Pahlavi and Alinejad were invited to take part in the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum of its kind, which was usually attended by Islamic Republic officials.

On March 13, the group finally published a document, known as the Mahsa Charter (so named for Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman whose arrest for wearing her hijab “improperly” and subsequent death in police custody triggered the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising), and launched a new organization, the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy in Iran (AFDI). But it had already lost the support of Karimi and Farahani, who offered no explanation for their absence. As soon as the charter was published, the group’s further disintegration began. Pahlavi’s supporters were among those who led the attack on the group. Many of their criticisms of the new group and its charter were vague or even conspiratorial. Why did the charter not use the phrase “Iranian nation,” speaking instead of the “people of Iran”? Why did it use a clenched fist logo; was this revealing a hidden leftist agenda? Why weren’t more pro-Pahlavi figures included in the group? It appeared that the real qualm of many Pahlavi supporters was with the very fact of him allying with left-leaning figures such as Esmaeilion or Mohtadi.

This is not to imply that the attacks only came from Pahlavi supporters. Others, including some well-known supporters of Alinejad, also mercilessly attacked Pahlavi, faulting him for not distancing himself from his aggressive advisers and for toying with ideas such as potentially working with defectors from the Islamic Republic’s security forces. Those in the opposition who had never warmed to the coalition or its figures (each of whom remained controversial for their own reasons) simply celebrated what was quickly becoming a fiasco.

In early April 2023, Pahlavi publicly distanced himself from the group, declaring that it had failed to “come to a consensus” regarding new members. Accounts shared since by supporters of Pahlavi, as well as Alinejad and Esmaeilion, make clear that there were some disagreements inside the group over who could be added to AFDI and through what process. But before these disagreements could be pursued, Pahlavi simply walked away. On April 16, when he set out on a controversial trip to Israel, AFDI’s demise was obvious, since none of its members were included on the trip. Esmaeilion left soon after (he said he had waited for the end of Pahlavi’s trip to Israel to make clear that it wasn’t why he was leaving). The group’s obituary was published on April 26 via a joint statement signed by its remaining members. Bringing about a united front of the opposition had taken years. Its demise came about in around six weeks. In the months since, animosities between different members have only intensified. Pahlavi no longer goes on Iran International; his supporters have been bad-mouthing the channel for months. Etemadi has gone as far as accusing the channel’s reporters of being “journalist-terrorists,” using the sort of language the Islamic Republic employs to characterize the Saudi-funded outlet.

With protests reaching an inevitable lull in Iran, the regime has since been able to overcome much of its global isolation. It has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS. It has reestablished diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and negotiated a deal with the U.S. over the release of some American hostages in Iran in exchange for the release of blocked Iranian funds.

The Islamic Republic has survived for four and a half decades, defying many predictions of its demise. This is despite the fact that it faces widespread opposition from the Iranian people who have repeatedly made their feelings known. Since 1997, in almost every meaningful election held in Iran, a clear majority of Iranians have voted for candidates who promise change. They have also voted with their feet in a variety of ways: by joining myriad protests, large and small, or by simply leaving the country for elsewhere, as they have in droves.

The regime’s survival is due to two principal factors: first, the sheer determined brutality of its establishment and security forces; second, the lack of anything approaching a united or organized political alternative. The latter doesn’t just stem from the many real differences among the opponents of the regime but is also due to intensive and organized efforts by the Iranian intelligence and security forces, which work to manufacture and accentuate rifts in the opposition to prolong their hold on power.

As the first anniversary of Amini’s death approached in September 2023, the Iranian opposition faced a sobering realization: At the moment of truth, it had failed to come together. As Boniadi wrote last year: “As with any authoritarian system, the Islamic Republic has persisted through a strategy of divide and rule. Ultimately, the opposition proved to be more fractious than the regime. As long as the regime is united, and we are divided, they will remain in power.”

In a widely shared interview, BBC Persian political analyst Hossein Bastani delivered a scathing critique of the opposition and faulted it for its unseriousness and for promoting the false idea that the downfall of the regime was imminent. They had “lost successive opportunities for real change” and had “effectively turned into actors that help prolong the status quo.”

With the failure of efforts from abroad, eyes have turned back to Iran. Even the regime’s own strategists admit that it has failed to solve any of the fundamental problems that have given rise to an almost constant wave of protests since 2017. As he celebrates his 85th birthday in April 2024, Khamenei sounds unconfident and embattled. His speeches remain peppered with words like “enemy” and “crisis” in every other sentence, but if these words once felt menacing, they now feel hackneyed and pathetic.

The resistance inside Iran continues. Having been diagnosed with uterine cancer in Evin Prison, the feminist activist Hedayat defiantly continues to advocate for democracy. Trade unionists continue to organize strikes and labor protests all around the country. Millions of women engage in a daily act of civil disobedience by refusing to cover their hair, although the new round of repression that started on April 13 is swiftly testing the limits of such actions.

But even as Iranians wish for an end to this regime, the formation of a political alternative continues to evade them. Whether it is led by efforts from inside or outside the country, this remains a necessary precondition for meaningful political change.

Listen to Arash Azizi discuss his latest book, “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom” — and related matters — on New Lines‘ podcast, The Lede.

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