A newly unified Iranian opposition looks to the EU

Mariam Memarsadeghi
Mariam Memarsadeghi
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Iranians from across Europe will gather in Brussels today to demand the EU list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as terrorists. The momentum of diaspora mobilization in support of the Iranian uprising is heady and profound. Yet since usurping power in 1979, the Islamist theocracy ruling over Iran has labeled its opposition weak and hopelessly divided. The regime’s foreign propagandists—apologists working in the West as journalists, analysts, scholars, and even human rights workers—have long echoed the same message, often lampooning those pledging nonviolent overthrow of the regime, and so far they have been proven right in their predictions of failure. So why is this time different?

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The answer is obvious from a cursory look at the streets both in Iran and abroad. Iranians of every age, lifestyle, worldview, economic class, faith, and ethnicity have risen up in unison in every part of the country and unmistakably to topple the totality of the regime. In turn, the movement’s cohesion and resilience in the face of beatings, shootings, torture, and rape have inspired ordinary diaspora Iranians to come together week after week in protests in cities across the globe. Global luminaries, too, have instinctively spoken out in support.

As a result, the regime has finally been dealt the blow it has worked to thwart since its inception: a gathering of prominent Iranian leaders in exile in a show of commitment to unity and collaboration.

Their alliance is strong because it is diverse, more civic than political: The former Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi, a decades-long advocate for secular democracy and nonviolent revolution; Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, a reserved, mild-mannered former judge now also boldly in favor of only revolution; rights activist Masih Alinejad, who has helped build up the revolution layer-by-layer through coordinated acts of civil disobedience; Abdollah Mohtadi, a representative of the Kurdish ethnic minority that gave Iran Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose brutal killing sparked the revolution; actresses Nazanin Boniadi and Golshifteh Farahani and soccer star Ali Karimi, popular figures devoted to amplifying the voices of ordinary Iranians struggling to breathe free; and Hamed Esmaillion, a dentist who heads the association of families of victims of flight PS752 downed by the regime, an advocate for accountability and justice for the Islamic Republic’s crimes against humanity.

The eight came together for a panel at Georgetown University on February 10, on the eve of the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Their discussion and ensuing celebratory embraces were broadcast on social networks and by major Iranian satellite news channels to the millions inside the country who had pleaded for months for such a display of unified solidarity from abroad. In their first meeting the group announced the shared intention to lay the foundations for political transition and to help develop its leadership structure, for which they will release a joint charter by the end of the month. Following this historic show of unity, Iranians gathered for mass protests in cities across the globe, including a rally in Los Angeles that drew over 80,000, with a surprise appearance by Pahlavi.

Over the weekend, Pahlavi, Alinejad, and Boniadi spoke at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. Though Khamenei’s henchmen are the usual interlocutors from Iran, this year conference organizers refused any representative from both Iran’s regime and Russia’s. The presence instead of Pahlavi, Alinejad and Boniadi will be a reflection of the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom on the international stage. This is significant, considering it was not long ago former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spoke at the same venue, asserting his credentials as a “human rights professor.”

Yet while the goal of overthrow and peaceful transition to democracy is shared across Iran’s political spectrum, the fissures and distrust are deep—a weakness exploited by the regime’s adept cyber army of fakes and plants. Ultimately the political factions—whether promoting constitutional monarchy or republicanism—must be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder in support of transitional mechanisms and a provisional government. None of the activities of exiles will matter if the revolution is not sustained on the ground.

Currently, over 18,000 innocents are being tortured and raped because they have protested. Protests and strikes will naturally wax and wane, but the risk of losing momentum is real. The movement needs to find ways to revive low-risk acts of disobedience to again build up civic mobilization for large scale protests and strikes.

When that happens, the protesters will also need to answer the question of whether a new round of strikes can be sustained in Iran’s stagnant economy, in which workers and their families continue to pay inflated prices for food and other basic necessities. While the opposition has advocated a Strike Fund to support strikers, as the US did for Solidarity in Poland, no tangible steps have been taken towards creating that infrastructure—despite the many wealthy Iranians living abroad who could easily contribute.

Progress on the opposition’s other asks—listing of the IRGC and more overt support for protestors, including their need for emergency internet when the regime shuts off access—depend in great part on convincing the US and Europeans that continued negotiations with the regime are a detriment to their security interests. Western governments are still unwilling to detach from the regime and invest instead in the people. For the revolution to succeed, the international community and regime insiders must recognize that the status quo is not viable. Perhaps the EU’s decision today will be a start.

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