Pahlavi and the Defeat of the Iranian Opposition
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The murder of the young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022, led to the largest popular uprising against the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution brought the theocratic regime to power. Amini’s death not only galvanized the people of Iran against the regime, but also energized the often-fractious Iranian diaspora into action like never before. Soon hundreds of thousands of Iranians were marching across the globe in solidarity with their sisters and brothers in Iran.

The protest chant “Woman, Life, Liberty” shouted on thousands of streets worldwide, soon came to define the uprising. The mass movement against the regime naturally led to calls for unity between the historically divided diaspora. But instead of achieving long lasting unity, the opposition was soon at war against itself, leaving the opposition leaderless and allowing the regime to suppress the most serious threat to its existence in the last forty-five years.

Blame cannot be completely placed on one opposition figure or group. However, Reza Pahlavi, the former Crown Prince of Iran and the most prominent opposition figure, and his far-right advisors, had a vital role in the opposition’s failure. I witnessed this painful reality personally behind the scenes.

Unlike the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Woman, Life, Liberty revolution lacked a singular leader. In response to popular demands for a unified leadership, eight prominent members of the opposition formed a coalition with four of them physically meeting at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on February 10, 2023.

The diverse coalition (etelaf in Persian) included Reza Pahlavi; anti-compulsory hejab activist Masih Alinejad; spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims Hamed Esmaeilion; actor and activist Nazanin Boniadi; leader of the Kurdish Komala Party Abdullah Mohtadi; former star of Iran’s national soccer team Ali Karimi; Nobel laureate lawyer Shirin Ebadi; and actor Golshifteh Farahani. The Georgetown coalition was a promising beginning to a united front that had eluded an opposition divided by personal rivalries and ideological divisions.

A significant number of Iranians both inside and outside of Iran favor the return of the monarchy under Pahlavi, while many believe that Iran’s monarchical system is a relic of a bygone era and an impediment to progress for a modern Iran. Acutely aware of these divisions, Pahlavi has publicly disavowed the throne and has attempted to model himself as a figure of unity. He has repeatedly stated his belief in a secular representative democracy and tried to stay above the factional fray of opposition politics. Pahlavi and the other members of the coalition even wrote a charter (manshour) laying out Iran’s political future. But instead of creating unity, Pahlavi became a central figure in the coalition’s unraveling.

There are several reasons for the coalition’s failure, including the lack of a clear strategy and planning in addition to personal rivalries between its members. But Pahlavi’s exit from the coalition under intense pressure from his far-right advisors played a crucial role.

I found Pahlavi’s vision for a secular democracy in Iran to be inspiring when I met him seven years ago. His dedication to democracy and warm personality made me a close supporter. He told me that his goal was not to regain his father’s throne but to serve as a figure of unity after the fall of the regime in Iran. Pahlavi told me that he believed Iran should hold a nationwide referendum after the regime’s overthrow so Iranians could choose their own form of government. In my many personal interactions with him, I found his belief in democracy to be sincere and became a trusted advocate of his vision in the ensuing years.

I still believe that Pahlavi is committed to democracy in Iran. But Pahlavi’s ultra-nationalist advisors have little respect for democracy or tolerance for the slightest opposing views. Unlike Pahlavi, they have little use for the concept of a diverse coalition and view Alinejad and Esmaeilion as opportunists riding the coattail of Pahlavi to boost their own credibility and political careers.

In addition, his advisors see their own political ambitions in a future free Iran as closely tied to Pahlavi’s political trajectory, openly conducting character assassination- mostly on social media platforms such as X (formerly known as twitter)- of any other figure they deem a threat to their own political ambitions.

Under pressure from his advisors, Pahlavi unceremoniously tweeted his exit from the coalition three months after its launch in Georgetown. Pahlavi’s subsequent solo tour of Europe where he was proclaimed “King Reza Pahlavi” by adoring crowds was a foolishly advisedly attempt to project him as the unitary leader of the entire Iranian opposition. This further undermined the opposition’s unity and trust in him. Esmaeilion’s departure after Pahlavi drove the final nail into the coalition’s coffin.

All of this has created a highly toxic, divisive environment within the universe of the Iranian opposition. Consequently, Pahlavi faces losing much of his political capital within and outside of Iran.

Most of Pahlavi’s democratic supporters, including myself, have left his orbit.

It is puzzling to many serious Iran observers as to why Pahlavi has surrounded himself with far-right authoritarian figures who shape and guide his every decision. Most of his advisors appear to be unpaid volunteers who try to evade responsibility for their poor decisions. But Pahlavi is directly responsible for empowering this divisive group of advisors. He would be wise to clean house and construct a serious operation staffed with seasoned professionals rather than a group of rabid ideologues. Otherwise, it is unlikely that any serious opposition leaders will enter a new coalition with Pahlavi.

Without a unified leadership, the opposition will continue as warring factions busy fighting each other rather than the regime. The biggest winner in this scenario is the Islamic Republic, which continues to brutalize the Iranian people and set the entire Middle East ablaze.

Alireza Nader is an Iran and Middle East scholar based in Washington, D.C.