Source: The Hill
Feb 17, 2023
BY BIJAN AHMADI, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
In the aftermath of the protests that have swept across Iran for the past five months, the political discourse around the Women, Life, Freedom movement has only gained momentum, even though the streets may seem calm these days. Despite the regime’s brutal crackdown, the spark of dissent ignited by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s “morality police” has led to an unprecedented convergence among opposition groups both inside and outside of Iran about the need for fundamental change in the country.
There is a growing consensus among a diverse range of political groups and dissidents that the current regime cannot be reformed and a new constitutional framework based on democratic principles is the only solution to address the demands and aspirations of the Iranian people. This marks a significant shift in the discourse among the opposition and signals a newfound unity in the pursuit of meaningful change in Iran.
Former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who led the Green Movement protests following the 2009 elections, recently issued a statement from house arrest calling for a fair and free referendum to start the process of creating a new constitution. In his statement, Mousavi argues that the reform project has failed.
Mousavi’s statement has received support from leading dissident figures, including those who are imprisoned in Iran. Additionally, Iran’s top Sunni cleric, Mowlavi Abdolhamid, publicly endorsed Mousavi’s call for a referendum. In comments posted on Twitter, Abdolhamid stated, “With his recent statement, Mousavi showed that he understood the realities of society. It’s time for other politicians and ulema (religious scholars) to think about saving the country and see the facts.”
Meanwhile, over the past five months, the Iranian diaspora communities across the world have witnessed remarkable unity. Thousands of Iranians have come together in cities around the world for solidarity rallies, amplifying the voices of protesters in Iran and bringing attention to the regime’s brutal crackdown and violations of human rights.
During a recent gathering of eight exiled opposition figures at Georgetown University to discuss the future of the democracy movement in Iran, former crown prince Reza Pahlavi, a widely recognized opposition leader, welcomed Mousavi’s statement and called for the “maximum participation” of all groups advocating for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Despite growing support for change in Iran, significant obstacles and uncertainties remain. The regime, along with its multi-layered security agencies, continues to resist calls for change and shows no indication of backing down. The legitimacy crisis facing the Islamic Republic has not swayed the hardliners or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which have financial resources and a base of fanatical supporters that are unlikely to permit a peaceful transition. The opposition’s plan for countering the regime’s security forces is unclear, and unless the security apparatus begins to crack and its members defect to the people’s side, it is improbable that the regime will lose its capacity to stifle protests.
The future of the democracy movement in Iran is further complicated by the country’s current tensions with the West over its nuclear program and its military support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. The regime’s close ties with China and Russia have provided it with access to advanced surveillance technologies, which have been used to suppress protests. The possibility of the regime seeking intervention from Russia in case of a serious crisis, similar to the situations in Syria or Kazakhstan, raises additional concerns.
Western democratic governments have demonstrated immense solidarity with the protest movement in recent months. The United States and its allies have imposed sanctions on the regime’s human rights violators, and Western leaders have shown their support by meeting with opposition figures and recognizing the movement.
But the future of this support remains uncertain. As the Islamic Republic faces internal pressure from the protests and external pressure from growing sanctions, it may make concessions on its nuclear program, leading to a potential deal with the West. In this scenario, it remains to be seen whether the Western governments will continue to support the protest movement and opposition groups.
Finally, despite opinion polls showing that over 80 percent of Iranians reject the Islamic Republic, rallying large numbers of protesters within the country remains a challenge for the opposition. This can be attributed to fear of violent crackdowns by regime forces and uncertainty, particularly among the middle class, about the future of the country after the Islamic Republic.
To overcome these fears, opposition leaders must develop a clear and achievable plan for a peaceful democratic transition that can win the support of the majority of Iranians and encourage them to participate in protests and other acts of civil disobedience.
The recent protests in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini have brought about a new level of convergence among opposition groups both inside and outside the country. But the road ahead is challenging, as the regime has a long history of using violence and repression against its citizens, as well as utilizing its regional and international influence to retain power.
Despite these obstacles, the unprecedented unity among the opposition groups is a cause for optimism and a testament to the resilience and determination of the Iranian people in their pursuit of a better future.
Bijan Ahmadi is executive director of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, an international affairs think-tank based in Canada. Follow him on Twitter @AhmadiBijanFA.