For those who wish to see an end to the Islamic Republic of Iran, one problem has long loomed large: what to replace it with? Lack of organization and unity among the Iranian opposition is a familiar and perennial problem.
However, the ongoing protests since the death of Mahsa Jina Amini on September 16, 2022 have led to an unprecedented mood of solidarity. While many differences still exist, an increasing number are contemplating putting those aside in favor of unity. In recent weeks, many supporters of the revolution have consistently asked well-known figures outside of Iran to form an anti-regime coalition (Etelaaf).
On January 1, a small first step was taken. A group of well-known Iranian figures abroad published a coordinated message on their social media accounts, which wished 2023 to be “a year for victory of the Iranian nation and realization of freedom and justice in Iran.” The endorsers of the message include but is not limited to: former crown prince Reza Pahlavi; journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad; grassroots activist and president and spokesman of the Association of Victims’ Families of Flight PS752 Hamed Esmaeilion; football legend-cum-activist Ali Karimi; and Noble Laureate Shirin Ebadi.
But disagreements appear to have continued. A few days later, on January 15, a second coordinated tweet was published. It called for the international community to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. This time, Esmaeilion didn’t join the coordinated message (he, however, tweeted separately about the subject). This was seen as a particular loss by proponents of opposition unity, since the grassroots activist has come to represent an important section of the opposition ranks.
In recent days, another online campaign has put the spotlight on one particular figure in the opposition: the former crown prince. It all started on January 13, when Pahlavi gave an interview to Manoto TV, a London-based broadcaster, long known for its sympathy for the ousted dynasty. Pahlavi once again defended a democratic vision that he has long advocated for: free elections to form a constituent assembly that could determine the future form of governance in Iran. When the anchor pressed Pahlavi on why he wasn’t playing a more leading role for the protesters, he said: “Whatever we want to do, we must have legitimacy from inside the country. If we are to negotiate in the international arena on behalf of our fellow Iranians, we have to be able to say that we are backed by political prisoners, civic activists, and political and intellectual currents inside the country who have enabled us to speak on their behalf.”
Responding to the comments, an Iranian journalist based in Germany published a video and declared that he considered Pahlavi to be speaking on his behalf. He used the hashtag #You_Represent_Me (#من_وکالت_میدهم). The hashtag was quickly picked up by thousands of other Iranians, inside and outside the country, who used it to declare their support for Pahlavi (Pahlavi and his supporters say this was a spontaneous online campaign, unbeknownst to them, while his opponents claim it was likely pre-coordinated with either himself or Manoto TV).
A petition on change.org declaring Pahlavi as “my representative” has been signed by more than 390,000 people so far. More importantly, many emphasized that they weren’t supporting Pahlavi to restore the fallen monarchy, but only backed him as an “interim figure” who could bring about a democratic transition away from the Islamic Republic.
One such supporter was Dariush Eghbali, one of the most popular singers in the history of modern Iran. Now based in Paris, Dariush is known for his left-wing sympathies, which landed him in jail during the rule of the former crown prince’s father, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The singer, who spent a total of twenty-six months in jail under the Shah, now declared that, since “the Iranian revolution has entered a new phase and requires new strategies,” he was backing Pahlavi as “a suitable option for representing the opposition abroad.”
Many other celebrities also declared their support for Pahlavi. Karimi, once known as the Maradona of Asia, said he was backing Pahlavi “for the period of transition…and toward organizing a free referendum for a free and prosperous Iran.” Other supporters included singer Ebi; Oscar-nominated actress Shohre Aghdasholoo; actor Hamid Farokhnejad, who left Iran only a few weeks ago; and activist singer Shahin Najafi. Another interesting case of support came from Kimia Alizadeh, a Taekwondo athlete who won bronze for the Islamic Republic at the 2016 Rio Olympics before defecting to protest mandatory hijab rules.
Support for Pahlavi isn’t limited to Iranians living abroad. Videos published on social media show Iranians in cities, such as Tehran and Izeh in southwestern Iran, shouting slogans like “Pahlavi, you are our representative” and “Pahlavi is our choice, the leader of our revolution.” Perhaps most touchingly, several relatives of those killed by security forces declared their support for Pahlavi, including Nasrin Shakarami, mother of Nika, a sixteen-year-old protester who was killed during the ongoing protests (Nika’s aunt, Atash Shakarami, meanwhile, voiced her opposition by declaring that “no one is my representative”); Manoucher Bakhtiari, whose son Pouya was killed during the November 2019 protests; and Peyman Qolipour, whose brother, Pejman, also killed in the 2019 protests (Peyman liked Dariush’s Instagram post.)
Many were reminded that some of the protesters recently executed by the regime, including Mohammad Hosseini, had also supported Pahlavi in their social media posts. Another such individual was Amirhossein Moradi, a protester and a former death row prisoner who was saved from execution after an advocacy movement united millions of Iranians in his support. Additionally, current political prisoners, such as Mohammad Daniali and Reza Norozi, have also declared their support.
To any fair observer of Iran, Pahlavi has a certain degree of support in Iranian society, although it is hard to discern just how wide this support is. In his analysis of the latest events, Khashayar Dayhimi, a respected intellectual based in Tehran, claimed: “I believe that, if there was a referendum today and Reza Pahlavi was on the ballot, he’d easily win because people don’t know anyone other than him.”
Benefiting from name recognition, Pahlavi’s support is also based on his espousal of broadly open and liberal democratic politics, although he has never denounced the authoritarian rule of his father and grandfather. In an often acrimonious political space, he never picks fights with other opposition figures and has managed to stay somewhat above the fray. Unlike some of his ultra-nationalist, right-wing, and harsh-sounding supporters, he often tries to build a big tent. He has refused to commit to the revival of the monarchy—but has not denounced the “prince” title most of his supporters use to address him with—even stating a preference for a republic. While some opponents of the regime blame Islam as a whole, Pahlavi affirms his Shia Muslim faith and has consistently called on “non-regime clerics” to join the people. He has extended a similar offer to members of the Iranian armed forces and IRGC who, he insists, must be part of the future of Iran.
Pahlavi has voiced support for such diverse and popular domestic-based figures as human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and Sunni cleric Maulana Abdulhamid. His staunch support for Iranian territorial integrity has also proved attractive to many. Even opponents have, at times, praised his patriotism. Many recall that, as a young man who had just been thrown out of his country by the revolution in 1980, Pahlavi offered his services as a US-trained pilot to the armed forces of the Islamic Republic as they fought off an Iraqi invasion (the offer was denied.)
While this staunch patriotism has led to critiques by some supporters of ethnic minorities, Pahlavi has also had support from major ethnic-based parties, which, after all, mostly agree with him that Iran’s territorial integrity must be preserved. In his response to the recent campaign, Abdullah Mohtadi, leader of the left-wing Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan—an observer member party of the Socialist International—spoke of Pahlavi’s “political capital” and added that he should be part of an anti-regime coalition.
But the online campaign in support of Pahlavi also has many critics. In response to it, the hashtag #He_Is_Not_My_Representative (#من_وکالت_نمیدهم) has also been circulated by many, including in the form of graffiti—“No to shah, no to supreme leader, death to the oppressor”— and signs during protests—“Reza Pahlavi is not my representative”—in Iran. Some criticized the fact that a movement dedicated to “women, life, freedom” should now expect to follow a male leader. Others warned that the last time there was blind enthusiasm for an individual revolutionary leader—referring to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979—things didn’t end up so well.
Zia Nabavi, a student activist in Iran who has spent years in prison, said support for Pahlavi showed people were desperate to find a leader but criticized the pro-Pahlavi campaign for “asking us to give up our own agency.” Jafar Azimzadeh, a well-known trade unionist and leading figure of the Independent Iranian Workers Union (IIWU), criticized the campaign in support of Pahlavi as “an attempt to build an alternative above the heads of the peoples of Iran.”
Even some sympathetic to Pahlavi warned that the focus should be on forming an inclusive and broad coalition and not just one person. Toronto-based lawyer and activist Kaveh Shahrooz wrote: “You can’t do it without Pahlavi. But you also can’t do it with only Pahlavi…To create a unity that has the power to overthrow the Islamic Republic, we need people with various views, including Mr. Pahlavi, to work together.”
Many have voiced similar opinions. While Pahlavi has some popularity, only a broader front can successfully defeat the regime, and this campaign could be a distraction from building a united coalition.
Warning against divisions, Tehran-based activist Atena Daemi published a Twitter thread adorned with pictures of two signs from protests in Iran: one which voiced support for Pahlavi, using the hashtag #He_Is_My_Representative; another which declared support for a “coalition of political parties” and affirmed that “no one person can be a representative of the whole country.” She denounced fights inside the opposition ranks.
Pahlavi himself seems to continue to believe in that broader tent. In a statement on January 21, which welcomed the support given to him by the online campaign, Pahlavi reminded people of his fall 2020 call for “national solidarity.”
“I, once more, ask for the collaboration of all pro-democracy forces, including personalities, political parties, and groups,” Pahlavi said. “We must help Iran’s national revolution based on three minimum common principles: Iran’s territorial integrity, a secular democracy based on human rights, and people’s right to determine the form of political regime in free elections.”
All major pro-democracy political forces of the opposition agree with these three demands. If they can find the ability to overcome their many divisions and build a united front, the Islamic Republic will come to face something that it has avoided for decades: a truly united opposition with a clear alternative to its rule.
Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar based at New York University. He is the author of “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions.” Follow him on Twitter: @arash_tehran.
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