The Houthis see the attacks in the Red Sea as part of a broader political project that goes back decades.
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In an address to the Iranian public during an opposition forum at Georgetown University February 10, Reza Pahlavi, the former crown prince of Iran, said, “This is a free bus, and there is no need to purchase tickets.” He continued, referring to the multitude of Iranian opposition groups inside and outside of Iran: “It is up to them if they want to join the ride … as long as they accept certain preconditions,” such as committing to free elections, secularism, and the territorial integrity of Iran. It is still unclear who’s in the driver’s seat of that bus and where it’s going. Moreover, the passengers’ commitment to the “preconditions” listed by Pahlavi remains uncertain. Nevertheless, coverage of the opposition in Iran’s state-censored media suggests that the Iranian regime is apprehensive about the possible emergence of a unified opposition, a testament to the potential of the Iranian opposition abroad.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian opposition abroad has made two serious attempts to forge a broad alliance against the regime. The first came in 1981, when leaders of the outlawed Mujahedeen-e Khalq opposition group and Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic – once allies of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – lost a power struggle and escaped to France, where they established the National Council of Resistance of Iran. However, after Mujahedeen-e Khalq aligned with Iraq following its 1980 invasion of Iran, Banisadr and other actors parted ways with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has since served as a front organization for Mujahedeen-e Khalq. In 1997, the United States designated Mujahedeen-e Khalq a foreign terrorist organization, though Washington removed it from the list in 2012.
The contours of a second attempt to forge an anti-regime alliance have emerged in the wake of the protests sparked by the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. In a seemingly coordinated move, on January 1, six public figures tweeted in Persian: “2022 was the year of glory and solidarity of Iranians regardless of belief, language, and inclination. Through organization and solidarity, 2023 will be the year of victory for the Iranian nation and the year of achievement for liberty and justice in Iran.” The individuals included journalist Masih Alinejad; actor Nazanin Boniadi; Hamed Esmaeilion, a dentist and author who became an activist after losing his family in the January 2020 downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iranian air defenses; actress Golshifteh Farahani; soccer star Ali Karimi; and Pahlavi.
The tweet’s origin is a mystery. Interviewed by Iran International television six days after the tweet, Esmaeilion said Karimi informed him of the intended tweet “a short time prior to the new year.” Esmaeilion also indicated that there had been no group discussion before or after the tweet but expressed hope that there would be a conversation among the group in the future. Therefore, it remains unclear who drafted the tweet, who contacted the six individuals, and whether there were others involved.
On January 15, Alinejad, Farahani, Karimi, and Pahlavi each tweeted in Persian: “For more than four decades, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been terrorizing and killing civilians inside and outside Iran. Security forces who join the Iranian people will be welcomed with open arms.” The English version of the tweet had a slightly different wording but conveyed the same message. On the same day, Boniadi and Esmaeilion retweeted part of a statement by Esmaeilion on the third anniversary of the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane, using the occasion to attack the IRGC. Boniadi tweeted: “#IRGC terrorists,” and Esmaeilion tweeted: “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a terrorist organization and must be recognized as such by the international community.” Both omitted the “open arms” reception as promised by other members of the group, which may indicate differences in the group concerning the role of members of the IRGC after a collapse of the Islamic Republic.
Pahlavi’s tweet marked a shift in his stance on the IRGC. On April 11, 2019, only three days after then-President Donald J. Trump designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization, Pahlavi, in an interview with Voice of America’s Persian service, distinguished between the “corrupt leadership” and the “self-sacrificing” rank-and-file members of the IRGC, whom he didn’t consider terrorists and whose heroism in the Iran-Iraq War he praised. While Pahlavi’s previous position may have served the tactical purpose of creating a wedge between the IRGC’s leadership and rank and file, by endorsing a terrorist designation for the IRGC in its entirety now, he may actually help to unify the organization.
Georgetown University’s “The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement” panel, which featured the six public figures as well as former judge and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Secretary General Abdullah Mohtadi, was an opportunity to demystify the tweets and explain the shift in Pahlavi’s view on the IRGC. However, it only generated new, more fundamental questions. All eight panelists declared their intention to overthrow the Iranian regime, but they did not explain how they intend to do so. Further, they did not shed light on whether they are assuming leadership over the protests in Iran or clarify what alternative form of government they are offering.
While Alinejad, Boniadi, Esmaeilion, Mohtadi, and Pahlavi did not express any opinion on the form of Iran’s future government, Ebadi and Farahani, who also spoke on behalf of Karimi, warned against any discussion of the subject until after the current government is overthrown. In an eerie echo of the Islamic Republic’s suppression of free speech, Farahani, referring to “the present sensitive circumstances,” said, “Expressing personal thoughts and ideas concerning the form of the future government of Iran will doubtlessly cause division and passivity among us … Any individual or group … causing division among the opposition is, consciously or unwittingly, committing treason.”
While some degree of calculated ambiguity is typical and useful in an opposition movement trying to build support, the vision for a future government matters, not only as a means of mobilizing Iranians around an alternative but also as a way to uncover potential political deception like Khomeini engaged in in the late 1970s. From his exile in Paris, Khomeini made vague, tactical references to the “rule of the people” in an appeal to the secular opposition to the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, only to impose religious totalitarianism after the victory of the revolution.
While Reza Pahlavi may not be intending to deceive, his messages over the years concerning his preferred form of government have been contradictory and confusing. On October 31, 1980, Pahlavi declared himself king of Iran, and over the years he has expressed his readiness to take the throne should a majority of Iranians vote to restore the monarchy. In March 2021, however, Pahlavi expressed support for a republican government. He caused further confusion in April 2021 by saying he did not find a ceremonial monarchy particularly useful, expressing an interest in preserving the right for himself to intervene in politics as “the voice of the people.” It remains unclear whether Pahlavi’s statement reflects a preference for taking the role of a governing monarch, like his father and grandfather, or serving as president of a republic.
Pahlavi reiterated his preference for a republican form of government at a February 22 conference in Munich: “Look, if I have the option between a secular republic and a hereditary monarchy, I will vote for republic!” However, should Iranians opt for a monarchy, Pahlavi presented the fanciful idea of an elective monarchy. “Can you find an innovative way where we perhaps have a kind of monarchy that is elective, as opposed to hereditary?” the former crown prince asked. Pahlavi answered his own question, saying, “If there is a clear job description, anybody can potentially play a role like this,” a likely reference to the role of the monarch, and continued: “It does not depend on any particular family. And by the way, it is a violation of human rights if you impose a role to a family to do that perpetually!” Despite his reference to free elections, the system of governance Pahlavi is promoting is unclear as is the role he envisages for himself. It is also unclear if his ambiguity regarding monarchical ambitions, whether calculated or improvisational, further weakens an already anemic opposition or merely accentuates another of its many challenges.
The panel was also vague in its answers concerning the leadership of the protest, or revolutionary, movement in Iran, although the panelists indicated that they merely voice the protesters’ demands rather than lead them. But it is unclear how these opposition figures can overthrow the Islamic Republic while the movement has no leadership, organization, funding, or unified vision for a post-Islamic Republic Iran. The panelists merely claimed a charter will be released in the near future, and they otherwise engaged in a display of solidarity and bonhomie, which came to an abrupt end hours after the panel concluded.
During an interview with an Iraq-based Kurdish television network, Mohtadi said he had not accepted any preconditions prior to joining the other panelists. He also said that once the regime is overthrown, Kurds in Iran can “form a million-man large coalition” and be “organized and brought into the streets in order to increase the scope of our demands.” Mohtadi said his alignment with the panelists was limited to the “transitional phase,” stressing that once the regime is overthrown, such alignment would not be necessary. He explained, “At that point, our demands will be more expansive.”
Mohtadi did not elaborate on these demands, but that same day, the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan issued a public statement praising the short-lived breakaway Republic of Mahabad, a puppet state of the Soviet Union that was established in Iranian Kurdistan in 1946. Mohtadi’s vague allusions to, and the Komala Party’s overt praise of, separatism run contrary to the principle of Iranian territorial integrity expressed by the other panelists, which may complicate his tactical alignment with them in the future.
In the wake of the setback caused by Mohtadi’s and the Komala Party’s statements, the Munich Security Conference gave much-needed momentum to the Iranian opposition abroad by inviting Alinejad, Boniadi, and Pahlavi to represent Iran at a February 18 discussion with Hannah Neumann, a member of the European Parliament, and Senator Bob Menendez. Toward the end of the discussion, a new crisis emerged as Alinejad declared that “the Mujahedeen do not represent the Iranian people” and asked why some members of the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress “welcome them.” Menendez, who has publicly expressed support for Mujahedeen-e Khalq, cautiously responded that he listens to all who demand freedom in Iran.
Mujahedeen-e Khalq was less cautious in its response, derided the panel as a “scandal,” and used its strong online presence to launch Twitter campaigns against Pahlavi and other panelists under the slogan “Death to the despot, be it the shah or the leader.”
With the Iranian opposition abroad once again at each other’s throats, the Islamic Republic may have emerged unscathed in this round of the struggle. Nevertheless, the regime appears concerned about the political dynamics among expatriate Iranians. Javan Newspaper, which reflects the viewpoints of the IRGC, covered the Georgetown forum, and Nour News Agency, an unofficial mouthpiece of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, published a lengthy article that rhetorically asked, “What is zero plus zero?” But why bother reporting on the opposition abroad if it truly is a nullity?
The reaction of the Iranian regime and its allies in the media illustrates the opposition’s potential, especially if it manages somehow to gain control over the anti-regime protests in Iran. But as long as the opposition lacks united leadership, organization, and a unified vision for the future of governance in Iran, its prospects for success remain circumscribed, and Pahlavi’s bus may have no other destination but utopia.
is a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is the author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Demise of the Clergy and the Rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2020).
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