A year ago this month, protests began in Iran following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She had been arrested by the morality police for her alleged noncompliance with the country’s Islamic dress code.
The response from the regime has been severe, with the authorities using lethal force against dissenters and mass arrests, detentions and even executions on the grounds of “waging war against God” (moharebeh), “corruption on Earth” (efsad-e fel arz) or “armed rebellion against the state” (baghi).
More than 500 protesters, including children, have been killed, according to the Iran Human Rights Activists News Agency.
But attention is increasingly turning to the idea that the regime may, at some point, crumble. That begs the question of what — and who — might replace it. In that context, it is worth reflecting on a meeting in Washington DC on 10 February, which saw an unprecedented gathering of exiled Iranian activists, journalists, politicians and royals hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
Support for the protesters went across Western media and even permeated pop culture, from the halls of the White House and the United Nations, to the Oscars and Paris Fashion Week. Baraye, the unofficial anthem of the Iran protests (written by Iranian singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour) was blasted out at the 65th annual Grammy Awards in February when First Lady Jill Biden announced that it had won the inaugural “Best Song for Social Change” award.
And the protest movement persists, despite the brute force used by Iranian authorities.
The highly anticipated Georgetown event, titled The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement, was meant to resolve questions about seemingly irreconcilables differences among the opposition, bringing together the most prominent Iranian leaders in the diaspora to promulgate a united and inclusive vision for Iran’s future.
“The revolution was ignited by Mahsa’s murder,” said Nobel laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi in a video message at the forum. “It’s like a train that has left the station. A train that doesn’t intend to stop. And its last destination is the fall of the regime.”
Commenting on the splintered opposition, Ebadi went on to add: “The Islamic Republic has survived because of our differences, and we should put our differences aside until we come to the polling booth.”
Moderated by Georgetown adjunct professor Karim Sadjadpour, the televised gathering of opposition figures featured Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s exiled crown prince; Masih Alinejad, a women’s right activist and journalist; Hamed Esmaeilion, an activist and former president of the association of families of Flight P752 victims who died in a 2020 plane crash (including his wife and daughter) shot down by Iranian forces; actresses and activists Nazanin Boniadi and Golshifteh Farahani; Abdullah Mohtadi, secretary-general of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan; and retired international football star Ali Karimi.
A month after the Georgetown forum, many of these Iranian diaspora leaders published a joint charter, named the Mahsa Charter, which laid out steps for activities to take place abroad, such as isolating the Islamic Republic internationally, in order to “facilitate the participation of activists inside the country”.
The promise was that these diaspora leaders were completely aligned with the mission to change “the Islamic Republic regime to a democratic Iran,” an Iran grounded in democratic governance, human rights and human dignity, justice, environmental sustainability and economic transparency.
Other objectives outlined in the charter included consulting “with democratic governments to expel the ambassadors of the Islamic Republic” and to consult “with democratic governments to expel all dependents of the Islamic Republic from their respective countries”.
But cracks began to emerge within a month when Hamed Esmaeilion, an initial signatory of the charter, announced he was leaving the coalition because of “pressures from outside, pressed via undemocratic methods”.
Many Iranians no longer see today’s clerical government as a legitimate representative of their basic national aspirations. That’s why the latest wave of insurrection in Iran should have provided a golden opportunity for the opposition to unite and pose an effective alternative path for the country.
But it has so far been unable to do so.
Part of that is because many of the opposition commonalities end with a shared antipathy toward the regime, with the fragmented opposition lacking a unified leadership structure, coordination and a shared vision of what a post-theocratic Iran might look like.
Iran’s opposition has long been divided into various factions, both in Iran and abroad, including republicans, monarchists, leftists, organisations representing ethnic minorities (such as Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis) and progressive Muslims.
While opposition groups jointly clamour for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, there remains no universal consensus on what an incoming government, whether transitional or permanent, would look like.
Would it resemble a monarchy, headed perhaps by Prince Reza Pahlavi, harking back to pre-revolutionary times when the Shah of Iran ruled, often with an iron fist — or would it mirror a republican system of government, totally devoid of a single authoritarian ruler presiding over the nation?
“The lack of an effective political opposition that could pose a serious alternative to the Islamic Republic is the main reason behind the regime’s hitherto survival,” according to Arash Azizi, an Iranian historian.
Despite some analysts expecting imminent regime change at the start of the Mahsa Amini protests, Azizi notes that such transformative change takes time, not to mention a robust and cohesive opposition leadership that represents diverse groups and individuals.
“Many seem to live under the illusion that if there is international pressure and street demonstrations, the regime magically collapses,” said Azizi.
The diaspora-based opposition doesn’t face the same challengers as dissenters within Iran, including violent suppression, arrest or worse, but it, too, has faced myriad challenges over the past year. For Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, the Iranian opposition had some promise but eventually collapsed after individuals put “themselves before the larger goal. The Georgetown event presented a unique moment of unity, but it quickly unravelled with supporters of monarchists leading attacks against other figures of the coalition,” Vakil said.
That’s why Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC, argues that, with the Iranian opposition in the diaspora effectively dismantling itself, the best hope for a credible opposition movement to effectuate a post-Ayatollah Iran likely comes from within.
“Inside Iran, protests are likely to re-emerge and sustained street protests may perhaps give birth to revolutionary leaders and help shape clandestine organisations, funding and a shared vision for Iran after the collapse of the regime,” said Alfoneh.
The Islamic Republic was itself born out of a revolution in 1979. To some, that explains part of its resilience in surviving multiple combustions of popular unrest, not just in 2022, but earlier in 2009 during the Green Movement, and later during sporadic economic protests from 2017-2021.
But all hope is not lost among Iranians looking to a brighter, more prosperous Iran. “Building a coalition needs patience, requires working together, having a shared vision, shared values and a shared strategy,” said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of the Iranian parliament and current CEO of the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy. “Ultimately, change will come to Iran. The majority of Iranians do not want this regime and it is only a matter of time.”
Whether the core thrust of that change comes from within Iran or abroad remains to be seen.
Jonathan Harounoff is a British journalist based in New York City.