OPINION: Iran’s Exiled Opposition Will Not Lead Regime Change

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and government officials attend a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. REUTERS

By Majid Mohammadi


Some political pundits readily dismiss the possibility of regime change any time a discussion on Iran concludes that the Islamic Republic is unreformable and must therefore be toppled to rescue the nation from its oppressive rule. They argue that the Iranian people neither wish for another revolution, nor see a viable alternative to the current governing system, given the lack of cohesion among exiled opposition groups, which stands in stark contrast to the regime’s decisive hold over the country. Iranian opposition groups abroad do not respond to this persistent criticism, because while they know that it is impossible to change the regime from outside the country, they rarely speak about it.

Most supporters and opponents of the Islamic Republic believe that no opposition party outside the country can start a revolution and overthrow the Iranian regime unless it organizes itself around a political leader or a central command structure. Many of those who partook in the 1979 revolution condoned a violent revolt. It was only after the mass imprisonment of political dissidents, intellectuals, and human rights activists in the 1980s that opposition groups and parties adopted a non-violent approach — which is only one model for change.

Throughout history, countries around the world have used a variety of models for changing ruling regimes:

  1. Military coup: It would be impossible to stage a military coup d’état in Iran, given that real power rests with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The regular army is also under the command of staunch supporters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The IRGC has no reason to stage a coup, as some might hope, because it already controls the government, the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) and the Judiciary. Therefore, it has no need to overhaul the country’s key institutions. Besides, the IRGC will never abandon the ideology that it shares with the regime, even if it were to end theocratic rule. It will continue to preserve the religious nature of the Islamic Republic.
  2. Foreign intervention and occupation: This is an unlikely scenario, because it would be impossible for an occupation force to control a country as big as Iran. Also, events in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that although a military intervention can successfully replace a ruling regime in the region, it is hard to control events and maintain security after the occupation. The West cannot use the same models in the Middle East that were used for rebuilding and developing Japan and Germany after WWII. Military intervention is an absurd idea discussed by those who wish to warn Iranians of the consequences of regime change.
  3. Civil war: A small opposition force would take control of a region of the country and force regime change. Communists used this tactic in some countries, including Vietnam. However, this method has failed in Syria, because authoritarian regimes help each other to stay in power. It is unlikely that this model would work in Iran given that the Islamic Republic enjoys the support of Russia, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.
  4. Political revolution: A popular uprising inside a given country is ultimately what triggers a revolution, even if the leader or leaders of an opposition movement live abroad. It is unlikely that Iranians are awaiting the emergence of someone to spearhead the fight against the Islamic Republic, given the absence of any charismatic leader or leaders inside or outside the country. Though helpful, the existence of opposition groups abroad is not a prerequisite for toppling a ruling regime. Egyptians ousted former President Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) with no help from exiled opposition groups. The same was true of many Eastern European countries in the former Soviet Union’s orbit, and of South American nations ruled by military juntas. Political revolutions take various forms and are usually led by civil society, human rights campaigners, labor unions, and political activists.

Critics of the Islamic Republic regime, inside and outside the country, must have realized by now that the foreign media, Western governments, human rights organizations, international institutions, Iranian political parties, exiled opposition groups and intellectuals living abroad cannot play a key role in overthrowing the regime, because every one of them envisions a different future for Iran.

Political parties active outside the country are under the illusion that one day, soon, Iranians will beg them to take over the country’s leadership. This will never happen because, throughout history, no one who has ever seized power handed it over to someone else. Many Iranian academics and intellectuals living abroad have either come to terms with the Islamic Republic regime or remained silent so they can travel back and forth to Iran. Only a small minority seriously opposes the Islamic Republic.

The Western media do not care about the struggle for democracy and freedom in Iran. They are only interested in newsworthy events. They frequently side with the political left and its anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli sentiments. Western governments look after their interests and work with any country that helps them achieve their goals. International institutions and human rights organizations operate within a rigid guideline that does not include supporting regime change. That is why only the Iranian people inside the country can topple theocratic rule, and they should not pin their hopes on exiled opposition groups.

There is a difference between the political left in the U.S. and Europe, which accepts the status quo in Iran, and international efforts aimed at changing the regime. Foreign entities are unwilling to oust the Islamic Republic. They can, however, play a role in facilitating and hastening or slowing down and blocking the process. They can also control the impact of regime change on the country’s population.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration did not promote regime change in Iran, but rather helped the Islamic Republic stay in power. The American political left has no fundamental problem with the Islamists. However, President Donald Trump’s foreign policy on Iran centers on increasing pressure on Tehran. Therefore, the global political climate in 2019 is conducive to regime change in Iran, given the European governments’ somewhat neutral stance on the matter.

There are three necessary conditions inside Iran for an uprising against the Islamic Republic to succeed:

  1. The majority of Iranians believe that the regime and its institutions are corrupt and ineffective. They hold the government responsible for growing unemployment, hyperinflation, and the high cost of living. They do not believe that the state will tackle housing, health, and education problems and improve their standards of living.
  2. Iranian society, including the supporters of the regime, demand greater civil liberties, individual freedom, political stability, and economic prosperity. Young Iranians avoid Islamic doctrine altogether. Many of those who belong to religious or military families support the regime only for economic reasons. Some even favor a non-violent transition of power and regime change. This segment of Iranian society, however, is not likely to start civil unrest, but rather adapts quickly to changing conditions.
  3. The regime’s ability to fund and maintain its security apparatus and oppressive policing diminishes.

The Iranian people do not wish a revolution similar to the one in 1979. Those who lived through it know the substantial human cost. The younger generation of Iranians has heard and read about the brutal nature of the Islamic Revolution. They know that the clergy and the IRGC will go to great lengths to maintain their hold over the country. However, this does not hinder or block all efforts to overthrow the Islamic Republic. It takes the determination of millions of people to topple the ruling system in Iran. Even the most despotic and murderous regime cannot gun down millions of street protesters.

Exiled opposition groups can play three critical roles if millions of Iranians were to come into the streets demanding the resignation of the supreme leader and call for a referendum and free elections:

  1. Meet with senior officials of various democratic governments and human rights organizations in the West to gain support for widespread civil unrest in Iran. Also, call on the international community to sever ties with the Islamic Republic.
  2. Make sure that the foreign media reports on civil unrest, so the world can hear the voice of the Iranian people.
  3. Organize and stage street marches anywhere there is an Iranian community.

None of these actions will play a crucial role in ousting the Iranian regime. They will only provide support for the civil unrest inside Iran. Therefore, people should not expect exiled opposition groups to lead the revolution. They are also not responsible for enabling the regime to remain in power. Exiled opposition groups and political parties can play a role, just as other Iranians do, in rebuilding the country after the demise of the Islamic Republic.

Most Iranians do not want another bloody and violent revolution, even though many harbor anger towards the clergy and the IRGC. They also do not wish to wait a long time for change. The Islamic Republic will not resort to violence if conditions for a rapid transition of power become possible. In that case, more people will come out in the streets to oppose theocratic rule. Millions of Iranians must unite in their demands for the Supreme Leader to resign and the regime to relinquish power in favor of a transitional government and free elections.

Western governments, media, and institutions, which have hoped for the Islamic Republic to reform, will join Iranians in calling for regime change once 10 or 20 million people take part in nationwide protest marches in the country. Ultimately, the Iranian nation, which has endured oppressive theocratic rule for the past four decades, must rise up and put an end to the Islamic regime.


[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]

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