Conflict and Fragility


Opposition politics of the Iranian diaspora: Out of many, one - but not just yet

27 Oct 2023 - 16:42
Bron: Members of the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran, from left to right: Reza Pahlavi, Nazanin Boniadi, Hamed Esmaeilion and Masih Alinejad.

By Arash Azizi - professor at Clemson University and the author of What Iranians want: Women, life, freedom

In September 2022, the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini marked a major turning point for Iran. Her death sparked nationwide protests that rapidly evolved from calls to discard controversial hijab regulations to calls to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The government responded with repression, killing over 400 protesters in the course of late 2022 and early 2023, according to human rights groups.   


In September 2022, the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini marked a major turning point for Iran. Her death sparked nationwide protests that rapidly evolved from calls to discard controversial hijab regulations to calls to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The government responded with repression, killing over 400 protesters in the course of late 2022 and early 2023, according to human rights groups. 

The Clingendael blog series ‘Iran in transition’ explores power dynamics in four critical dimensions that shape the country’s direction: state-society relations, intra-elite dynamics, the economy, and foreign relations. This particular blog post analyzes key dynamics among the Iranian diaspora and opposition in the wake of the 2022/2023 protests, and discusses their relevance for the situation in Iran.

 Political organization inside and outside Iran

 The 2022-23 protest movement in Iran quickly faced the same problem as previous rounds did in 2009, 2017-18 and 2019-20: a lack of leadership and organization. This problem was partially self-inflicted as many proponents of the movement saw being ‘leaderless’ as a virtue. As Vincent Bevins has shown in If We Burn: The Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, similar beliefs held sway in dozens of movements around the globe during the 2010s. But as it soon became clear that the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic would not be dislodged without organization, where could such leadership emerge from?

 Inside Iran, most civic and political organizing has long been banned. Even the legal reformist political parties (Eslahtalab), who support the Islamic Republic in principle and distance themselves from the desire to overthrow the regime (Barandazi), find themselves heavily restricted. Since 2020, they have been barred from running in most elections. Thousands of human rights activists, civic leaders and trade unionists are behind bars. Organizing civic bodies on a nationwide level is prohibitively difficult. 

 This is why many Iranians started looking to the diaspora, which has much greater room for organization and freedom of action. Although reliable and up-to-date numbers are not available, an estimated 6 to 8 million Iranians live abroad (there were 4 million in 2004, which can be multiplied with an annual departure rate from Iran in excess of 150,000/year). They mostly live in Western countries but also reside in neighboring countries in the Middle East, Southern Caucasus and Asian counties like Malaysia and India. The diaspora includes both Iranian citizens, often relative newcomers with strong ties back home, as well as second or third-generation migrants. Of the latter, many hold significant political or business positions that include roles as CEOs of several Fortune 500 companies and members of legislative bodies in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Norway, France and the Netherlands. Even those who do not speak Persian often maintain a strong attachment to their Iranian identity. Another advantage of the diaspora is its concentration in hubs that thus have a rich cultural and social Iranian life. One obvious example is the city of Toronto whose Iranian community hosts dozens of events every week. Toronto’s three major universities host an estimated 10,000 Iranian students (out of c. 21,000 Iranian students Canada-wide in 2022). 

 A key vector of diaspora influence on Iran are its numerous Persian-language websites and broadcasters. While some of these are run by private individuals or groups, there are also significant outlets backed by funding from countries such as NetherlandsUKthe United States and Saudi Arabia that employ hundreds of talented Iranian journalists abroad and reach millions inside Iran. While reliable polling is hard to come by, there is no doubt that outlets such as BBC Persian, Manoto, Radio Farda, IranWire and Iran International have, at various times, helped to shape public opinion, the news agenda and lifestyle choices in Iran. 

Despite all of this, Iranians abroad have failed to form significant or durable opposition organizations. For instance, it is quite striking that despite the presence of tens of thousands of Iranian students abroad, no significant organization has been created to bring them together. Several such attempts have in fact failed. This stands in sharp contrast to the pre-1979 period when the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS) mobilized thousands of students and, more importantly, acted as incubator for several political groups. Much of the leadership of the political groups vying for power in Iran after 1979 had a past in the CIS. 

 Noteworthy Iranian opposition organizations abroad

 There are a few dozen Iranian political organizations and parties abroad but these are mostly small with a few dozen to a few hundred members, mostly veterans of the 1979 revolution and thus in their sixties or above. There are two major exceptions: the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, also known by its Persian acronym MEK), which is based in Albania and has significant organizational capacity and wealth. Yet, this outfit has little political influence in Iran and is despised by much of the population due to its cult-like status, its unpopular Islamist-Leftist ideology and its history of collaborating with Saddam Hussain during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. The other exception are ethnic Kurdish parties such as the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KPIK). These parties operate bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and have thousands of members in the diaspora. But their influence is limited since they represent only one ethnic group in Iran that is relatively small. 

 A few other organizations are nevertheless worth mentioning. Groups on the Marxist left, such as the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WPI) or the Left Party of Iran can sometimes mobilize a few hundred people. In April 2023, a gathering of leftist parties in Cologne brought together over a 1,000. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Constitutional Party of Iran (Liberal Democrat), founded in 1994 by Daryoosh Homayoun, a cabinet minister under the Shah, is probably the most noteworthy organization. Based in Los Angeles, the Constitutional Party has a modest number of members, mostly limited to older generations, but it does enjoy some gravitas due to its association with officials of the Shah’s regime. It is a monarchist party, a distinction it shares with the New Iran Party (NIP) which was formed in 2018 by a number of right-leaning young political activists. While NIP also remains small, and mired in factional splits, a number of its figures have been influential as political commentators about events in Iran in the media. 

 Given their limited influence and organization, none of these parties were in a position to pose a serious challenge to the Islamic Republic when street protests broke out in the fall of 2022. A number of reasons account for this state of affairs. As noted, many younger activists were ideologically opposed to organized politics due to their belief in ‘horizontalism’, i.e. operating without leaders. In addition, older parties were led by Iranians of the 1979 generation, which had some fundamentally different viewpoints compared with new generations of emigrees. Finally, many Iranians that recently left the country were tired of politics and wanted to stay away from it abroad. In contrast, Iranian diaspora members did create significant non-profit organizations, such as the San Francisco-based United4Iran that supports civil society in Iran, as well as human rights organizations like the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran or the UN-focused coalition Impact Iran. 

Famous faces and opposition politics

Putting the dearth of large opposition parties asides, there are a few political figures in the diaspora that have substantial name recognition in Iran. By far the best-known is Reza Pahlavi, the last heir to the Iranian throne before the overthrow of the monarchy. Instant name recognition gives him an obvious benefit but it also creates a risk, namely his association with the autocratic rule of his father and grandfather. Still, many admire the achievements of the Pahlavi dynasty or simply believe that it was better than the Islamic Republic. 

Pahlavi himself has previously surprised many by adopting a broadly liberal democratic outlook while criticizing aspects of his father’s rule, such as widespread torture during his reign. Still, he has long been hampered by a contradiction. His own public discourse calls for compromise, inclusive rule and respect for human rights. He has praised figures like human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh; Ayatollah Montazeri (deputy supreme leader under Khomeini who later became a critic of the regime) and Maulavi Abdulhamid (Iran’s top Sunni cleric and a popular leader among Iran’s ethnic Baluch). But many of Pahlavi’s supporters are cut from a different cloth and advocate for aggressive, chauvinistic, exclusionary and ultra-nationalist politics that could be classified as far-right. They openly praise the Shah’s secret police, the Savak, and reserve much of their ire not for the Islamic Republic of Iran, but for its leftist or ex-reformist critics. This gap between Pahlavi’s discourse and his closest associates is one reason while his previous attempts to create a durable political organization in opposition have failed. 

 But after 2022/2023, there was hope that Pahlavi could close this gap by joining others in a more inclusive political front. Becoming a regular on media outlets, Pahlavi gained visibility and popularity. For example, Ali Karimi, a former Bayern Munich star, declared support for Pahlavi and used his online platform as a hub for the opposition. Also, some political prisoners in Iran openly supported him and his name was shouted in several demonstrations inside the country (while others shouted slogans against him). A petition in his support was signed by 300,000 Iranians. This gave him some momentum as potential leader of the newly established Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran (ADFI, see below). Other well-known opponents of the regime included Masih Alinejad, a New York-based journalist who is an influential diaspora activist. Calling on Iranian women to share hijab-less images online, Alinejad’s campaigns engaged tens of thousands of Iranian women and led to the regime passing laws explicitly aimed at criminalizing contact with her. According to US authorities, regime spies have also attempted to kill or kidnap her. Hamed Esmaeilion, an Iranian-Canadian dentist and novelist, is another leading opposition figure. Esmaeilion lost his wife and daughter on PS752, the Tehran-Kiev flight that was shot down by the IRGC, killing all 176 onboard. He emerged as the main spokesperson of the families of the victims. He played a key role in organizing mammoth rallies of oppositions supporters in Berlin and Toronto with 50,000 to 100,000 people participating in each. Yet another leading figure is actress Nazanin Boniadi. Known to many in the West for her roles in series such as General Hospital and The Lord of the Rings, Nazanin had long worked with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Center for Human Rights in Iran. 

 The opposition Charter that was not

 Many expected these dissidents and celebrities to come together. After many secret meetings, what many hoped finally came to pass: A conference in Georgetown University on 10 February 2023 brought together Pahlavi, Alinejad, Esmaeilion and Boniadi. Karimi joined via video link, as did Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, actress Golshifte Farahani and Abdullah Mohtadi, the leader of KPIK. The image of some of the best-known opponents of the Iranian regime locking hands in front of the cameras proved reinvigorating. The ‘Georgetown Coalition’ declared it would publish a charter of shared demands within a month. Unprecedented opposition unity seemed within reach. Its fruits became tangible days after the Georgetown meeting when Pahlavi and Alinejad were invited to take part in the Munich Security Conference, which is usually attended by Islamic Republic’s officials. 

 On 13 March 2023, the group finally published a document, known as the Mahsa Charter, and it launched a new organization, the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran (ADFI). But it had already lost the support of Karimi and Farahani who offered no explanation for their withdrawal. As soon as the Charter was published, the group continued its disintegration. Pahlavi’s own supporters were amongst its most vocal critics, although attacks on the ADFI have also come from others. They took issue with Pahlavi allying himself with left-leaning figures like Esmaeilion and Mohtadi. Pahlavi publicly distanced himself from the ADFI in early April, declaring that the group had failed to “come to a consensus” regarding the admission of new members as he had requested. On 16 April 2023, when he departed on a trip to Israel, the AFDI’s demise was obvious since no other members joined, even though none objected. Esmaeilion quit ADFI soon afterwards and the initiative came to an end on 26 April. 

Achieving unity in the diaspora

 The rapid disintegration of the AFDI came as a rude shock to many supporters of the opposition. Creating a united opposition front had taken years. Its demise took a few weeks. About six months later, too few attempts have been made to analyze the reasons for this failure, identify the necessary lessons, or to launch new initiatives. Nevertheless, two general lessons can be gleaned from the experience. First, instead of media campaigns by well-known figures, durable political organization can only result from building member-based organizations. Esmaeilion noted this in some of his statements, but concrete efforts to build such institutions have been lacking. Second, dissidents must define a sphere of political action that excludes extremists but includes a critical mass of Iranians. Among the issues that could serve as basis for such unity are a commitment to maintain Iran’s national unity in the face of its many socio-ethnic groups and their demands, as well as a commitment to democratic and civic values. 

 Unity of diaspora political efforts also requires ditching the acrimonious tone that has long dictated much of the diaspora conversation. Such acrimony used to be reserved for those who were allegedly pro-regime, but it has become universal in the sense of sparing no-one from criticism and is used by one side against another, and even between those that are very close to each other on the political spectrum. Many believe that some of this discord is fueled by cyber operations of the Islamic Republic on social media, pitting one faction against another. 

 For now, the failure of diaspora efforts to unite has turned all eyes back on Iran. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Narges Mohammadi on 6 October 2023 could have made headlines if it had not been for the Israel-Hamas war that broke out the following day. Mohammadi has a long history of uncompromising civic activity that has landed her in jail for years. She also has center-left sensibilities and uses flexible strategies, which means she has opposed US sanctions and voted, from the inside of her prison cell, for former President Hassan Rouhani. However, like many in her political camp – such as Mirhossein Mousavi and Mostafa Tajzadeh - she now demands fundamental political change. She has even explicitly called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. But Mohammadi remains in jail and has limited room to organize any opposition activity. If diaspora Iranians would be able to build political institutions that could mobilize significant numbers of Iranians abroad, they could create synergies with figures like Mohammadi. This could bring the elusive prize within reach of building an opposition coalition capable of influencing events inside of the country. It is only in such a scenario that the Iranian diaspora opposition will become relevant to the future of Iran and its political developments.