In first, diverse exiled Iranian opposition leaders unify

The opposition group vowed to present a unifying document by the end of the month and pledged to bring democracy to Iran, but they still need someone on the ground to lead the revolution.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi poses for a photograph at the Thomson Reuters office in London, Britain, February 2, 2023. (photo credit: REUTERS/SUZANNE PLUNKETT)
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi poses for a photograph at the Thomson Reuters office in London, Britain, February 2, 2023.

Eight prominent exiled Iranian opposition leaders met at Georgetown University in Washington and vowed to unify in order to bring democracy to Iran, following close to five months of daily anti-regime protests and unrest in the country. 

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While this union is a milestone, at this stage it is too disconnected from the situation on the ground to lead a revolution in Iran, experts say.

The meeting on Friday was held as part of an event, The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement, hosted by Georgetown University's Institute for Women, Peace and Security. The event took place the evening before the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that established Iran’s Islamic Republic, which was celebrated with rallies in Tehran and other major cities throughout Iran by supporters of the regime.

The opposition leaders that agreed to band together have a wide variety of ideologies, goals and circles of followers. However, all of them pledged to fight for democracy in the country.

"Prepare for a day without the Islamic Republic"

Reza Pahlavi, the son of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, was one of the opposition leaders who attended the event. He was joined by well-known US-based journalist and activist Masih Alinejad; Iranian actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi; and Hamed Esmaeilion, a Canada-based prominent Iranian activist.

 PRINCE REZA Pahlavi sits in his office in Washington.  (credit: Courtesy/Secretariat of Reza Pahlavi) PRINCE REZA Pahlavi sits in his office in Washington. (credit: Courtesy/Secretariat of Reza Pahlavi)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a political activist and human rights activist; the co-founder and secretary-general of the Komala Iranian Kurdish party Abdullah Mohtadi; Iranian French actress Golshifteh Farahani; and the former captain of the Iranian national soccer team and human rights activist Ali Karimi, also addressed the event attendees virtually.

All eight opposition figures spoke about the power of the protest movement that is still ongoing almost five months after it was triggered by the death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police for wearing her hijab incorrectly, despite the harsh crackdown on protests by the Iranian regime.

They also announced that they are aiming to publish a document by the end of the month that will lay out the foundations of the political aspirations of the protest movement. "We must agree on minimal principles... The world must prepare for a day without the Islamic Republic," Alinejad said. 

Diba Mirzaei, a research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and a doctoral candidate at the University of Hamburg, told The Media Line that, although the formation for the first time since 1979 of an Iranian opposition group made up of different factions it is a major step, "it should not be forgotten that those at the forefront of the movement are Iranians inside the country."  

"Those people inside the country who have been advocating for change in Iran are the real leaders of the Iranian revolutionary movement. This has been acknowledged by the opposition leaders," she said.

Anastasia Chisholm, a Middle East, and North Africa intelligence analyst focusing on geopolitical developments at London-based Sibylline Ltd. risk consultancy, told The Media Line that the character of each opposition figure is likely to appeal to different demographics in Iran and is not likely to actually affect the current protests. 

"The coalition remains unlikely at present to significantly alter the trajectory of protests in the coming weeks," she said, adding that an individual with direct in-country experience in leading, calling for and organizing antigovernment protests would be more likely to gain clout within the civil society space.

However, she notes that the strong response from Iranian security forces in detaining and punishing protesters and activists reduces the likelihood of a leading figure in the country being able to operate long enough to emerge as a perceived revolutionary leader.

Chisholm suggests that the exiled opposition union can be very effective in raising the international community's awareness of the situation and advocating for it to act to isolate the Islamic Republic. 

"The opposition members could use their high-profile positions to draw further international attention to the domestic human rights situation and increase pressure on Western governments to impose additional sanctions targeting the Iranian government," she said, adding that this is likely to include increasing pressure on European Union member governments to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) as a terror organization.

Chisholm cites the bill passed by the US Congress named after Alinejad in December 2022, the Masih Alinejad HUNT Act, which imposes sanctions on foreign individuals who act on behalf of the Iranian government and engage in the harassment of diaspora activists, as a success of exiled Iranian opposition figures.

Chisholm also highlights Prince Pahlavi’s calls in recent weeks for expatriate activists to participate in anti-Iranian government rallies globally, and his potential to mobilize the Iranian diaspora.

Mirzaei says that a major achievement of this opposition union is that it proves that the revolutionary movement in Iran and also among the Iranian diaspora “is still very much alive, even though protests have become less visible in the past few weeks."  She adds that it also shows that Iranians can overcome their differences and cooperate despite their differing political views.

But she believes that the greatest achievement of the unified opposition is that it already has gained international acknowledgment. Mirzaei notes that the opposition leaders have been invited to this year’s Munich Security Council, while for the first time no representative of the Iranian regime has been invited. "This is a bold move from the international community toward the regime in Tehran," she said.

Mirzaei reiterates that, at this stage, it is “difficult to assess how successful and beneficial to the people in Iran this group will be."

But if they manage to overcome their differences and – in the long term – form a united front, while creating an inclusive space where all Iranians despite their ethnic, social and religious differences are welcome, then "this group can be a game-changer," she concluded.