Uniting the Democratic Opposition to the Islamic Republic is a Riddle that has Evaded Us for 44 Years
A year after the murder in custody of Mahsa Jina Amini – arrested by the Islamic Republic’s morality police for inappropriate hijab – it seems the world has moved on. But the fire of the revolutionary protests that broke out for months after Mahsa’s death still burns in the hearts of the Iranian people, as they urgently call on us to more effectively support them the next time they rise up for fundamental political change.
In my 15 years advocating for my fellow Iranians, I have never witnessed such fervent opposition to the clerical regime as there is in Iran today. The nationwide protests sparked by Mahsa’s murder, and their battle cry “Woman Life Freedom,” are the greatest existential threats faced by the theocracy in its more than four decades in power. And the crackdown has been equally brutal. Since last September more than 500 protestors have been killed, more than 20,000 arrested, at least seven executed and dozens more still face the gallows. Thousands of Iranians have been blinded, gassed, forcibly disappeared, raped and tortured.
On May 19, 2023, as we learned that three more protesters had been executed by the Islamic Republic after sham trials and forced confessions, I felt a deep sense of failure that the opposition’s weakness had intensified the regime’s bloodlust. It was a sobering and isolating moment. The executions underscored the urgency of reflecting on what we could have done differently to bring about our objectives. After all, what good is any of this advocacy if we are unwilling to learn from our missteps and address our shortcomings? Of course, transparency and critiques only serve us if they are thoughtful and constructive, and intended to make us stronger, rather than to diminish each other or to create more division.
Heeding the calls of those in Iran – who wanted prominent Iranian dissident figures to form an alliance to help the Iranian people achieve their democratic aspirations – in January 2023, after several weeks of video conferencing, I joined what we later named the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran. We were a diverse coalition brought together, in part by popular demand, because of our individual efforts to give a voice to the protests. The group included the Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi; journalist, author and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad; Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi; Kurdish political leader Abdullah Mohtadi; and civic leader, author and dentist Hamed Esmaeilion.
Despite our varied backgrounds and skills, we shared a common passion to help advance the cause of secular democracy for our homeland. Our intention was to create a framework of cooperation to unite Iranians in pursuit of this goal, and to use our combined experience and platforms, not to lead the Iranian people, but to reflect and pursue their demands with greater and collective impact. Our long and frequent interactions were not only civil, but after a short period of overcoming formalities and trepidations, they were even hearteningly warm.
For a few months – and for the first time in almost half a century – Iranian democratic opposition voices were afforded global media coverage, met with world leaders, and replaced Islamic Republic officials at international fora. The country was ousted from the UN’s top legislative body on women’s rights and a landmark UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission offered hope in tackling systemic impunity in Iran. These unprecedented achievements were a testament primarily to the immense courage of the Iranian people, but also to the unity of the diaspora against the regime at the time.
While most Iranians inside the country were broadly unified in their calls for the formation of a diverse opposition alliance, there was erosion in this solidarity in the months that followed, as differences emerged in viewpoints on the trajectory and the ultimate goals of the movement. Although the members of the Alliance shared the goal of securing for the Iranian people the agency they had been denied for decades, concomitant frustrations and tensions also mounted within our group and the broader diaspora. The regime’s notorious cyber army, aided by dogmatic extremists of every persuasion, undoubtedly exacerbated these tensions. Old rifts – left vs right, monarchist vs republican – widened and deepened.
My hope was to bridge differences in our group and to lend my platform to a coordinated, democratic movement, while continuing to be a megaphone for the Iranian people on the world stage. Naturally, our roles varied, and popular expectations of someone like the Prince were different given his historical prominence.
My decision to exit the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran, after the departure of two other members, was not taken lightly. My advocacy has been, and always will be, results-oriented; and one must recognize when something is not working, to change course. As such, I felt that remaining a part of a fractured group without a concrete and strategic plan for meaningful change was an empty promise to the Iranian people.
Those not involved in the struggle may think it is easy to criticize the efforts by the Alliance to lay the foundation for a secular democracy for Iran. We tried, and while we have not yet been successful in our ultimate goals, we are better for having made an effort; as the Persian adage says, “an unwritten essay has no errors.” But, of course, it is crucial that we do not repeat these errors.
If success is defined as opportunity meeting preparation, then it is incumbent upon us to identify the lessons we can apply to increase the likelihood of future success.
First, to confront the challenges presented by the Islamic Republic, we must clearly define our objectives and then develop solutions that are tailored to facilitate reaching those objectives. We did neither effectively. While idealism allows us to conjure a bold vision for a better tomorrow, it is pragmatism that allows us to achieve it. A balance of both is needed in this work.
Second, we need both visionary and organizational leadership. Despite a breadth of advocacy and political experience, we were lacking in organization and capacity, as well as internal processes and campaign management. We also failed to articulate a vision that all Iranians could relate to and that could impel them to unite under the single banner of a secular democracy. In the future, we should enlist the many skilled, accomplished and influential Iranian expats around the world, who can offer substantive support to the cause in areas such as communications and constitutional expertise.
Third, 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.
But there are bright spots that give me hope.
Iran’s Gen-Z continue their micro-protests by, for example, playing the music of Abba on the streets of Tehran in an effort to “inject joy into society.” We see women bravely continue to flout the compulsory hijab on the streets of the capital, and imprisoned dissidents continue to defy the regime when released. At 84-years-old, the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic since 1989, is the oldest and longest ruling dictator of our time. His passing will likely create a power vacuum and a new opportunity for opposition for those who are prepared, organized and prudent enough to seize the moment.
Autocracies are rigid but fragile, which is why revolutions are often unimaginable until they happen. But we must be prepared for when that time comes, and the onus is on us to set aside our differences and to work together to oppose the Islamic Republic.
The first step is to reflect on how we can approach things differently next time. I will continue to do everything in my power to work with Iranian civil society, as well as groups and individuals outside of Iran, to bring about the sustainable and lasting freedom the Iranian people have been calling for and deserve.
We would be wise to heed the words of the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, as we stand with the Iranian people in opposition to the Islamic Republic: “Diversity in counsel, unity in command.” It is the only way we will overcome tyranny.
Nazanin Boniadi is a human rights activist and actress.