As the power struggle in Tehran intensifies, Iran watchers begin to focus on Iranian opposition groups that could play a part in whatever happens next. In all three options under discussion in political circles, that is to say, change of behavior by the regime, regime change, and change within the regime, these groups may help tip the balance one way or the other.
Brian Hook, the man appointed by President Donald J Trump to coordinate policy on Iran, has launched a series of consultations with figures within the Iranian opposition movement with assurance that Washington has abandoned President Barack Obama’s policy of bolstering the present regime in Tehran and would be prepared to work with other forces to help put Iran on a different trajectory.
Iranian opposition leaders believe that if the US stops supporting the regime in Tehran other major powers would also distance themselves from the present set-up led by “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They also believe that the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran, riven by internecine feuds, is running out of steam and unable to cope with the challenges it faces at home and abroad.
On the basis of that analysis, opposition groups inside and outside Iran have been holding numerous conferences, seminars and workshops with many more planned for the coming weeks and months.
One seminar, held in London, brought together more than a dozen and groups under the title “the transition period in Iran.”
There is also talk of an all-inclusive “national conference”, to be held in autumn, to foster a structured dialogue, if not actually a formal link, between oppositions parties and groups inside and outside the country with the aim of seeking greater international support especially from the Western democracies.
Until a few years ago, that is to say before the emergence of social media, analysts routinely divided Iranian opposition groups into two big categories: those inside Iran and those in exile. That division, however, is now blurred as most exile groups have succeeded in establishing reliable links with sympathizers inside the country. Those links were tested with some success during the last two major nation-wide uprisings, last December and last March, as millions of protesters had their voices amplified and their tactics harmonized by activists outside Iran.
The division between insiders and outsiders remains, but it is increasingly less significance.
There are, however, other dividing lines that might hamper the opposition’s effectiveness in challenging the current regime. One such division is between those who still seek part of their legitimacy from the 1979 Islamic Revolution which they claim was “betrayed” by those who are now in power. Other opposition groups, however, try to base their legitimacy on a real or claimed opposition to the Islamic Revolution from the start. Fighting over the past still causes bitter discord among the Khomeinist regime’s many opponents.
Another dividing line has ideological roots. In that context, three camps could be distinguished.
The first is that of all parties and groups that insist on maintaining at least an Islamist accent and using such symbols as hijab for women and “khaki” or non-Western clothing for men.
The second camp is represented by Iranian nationalists, those who hark back to the Persian Empire of 25 centuries ago, and highlight their “Aryan” identity. Most groups in this camp also support a restoration of the monarchy. But there are also some nationalist groups that campaign for a republican system of government.
The third camp is the home of parties and groups inspired by Western ideas such as republicanism, secularism and a panoply of leftist positions from social democracy to Maoism.
All three camps have scored some success in challenging the regime’s legitimacy and keeping the political temperature high across the nation. They have also succeeded in exposing, not to mention actually blackening, the regime’s image abroad. Their combined efforts have prevented the regime to achieve a degree of normalization without which no major domestic and/or foreign policy issue could be decided and implemented.
However, opposition parties and groups have had little success in providing an alternative source of moral and political authority in the service of a credible alternative system of government.
Their message regarding the undesirability of the present regime resonates with many Iranians, perhaps even a majority. Where they have less success is when they face the difficult question of “what happens on the day after tomorrow?”
In many cases, Iranian opposition groups and parties compensate for the relative paucity of their political and ideological wares with high voltage activism.
In some cases, the degree of commitment, devotion and readiness for self-sacrifice manifested by militants is truly amazing.
But which are the main opposition groups?
Inside Iran, the cluster known as “reform-seeking” (Islah-talab) has a history of almost three decades of dissent with hundreds of members suffering prison, exile and, in some cases, even assassination. The movement’s strategy was based on the concept of “evolution from within (istihala) developed by its chief theoreticians such as Saeed Hajjarian and Mustafa Tajzadeh. This attracted many technocrats, journalists and academics and even politicians.
Within the regime or orbiting around it. Today, however, it lacks a recognizable leader and, many analysts believe, suffers from a mood of total rejection of the revolution and its outcome.
Emerging from the revolution but quickly turning against it are a number of Islamist and Marxist groups and parties.
The largest of these is the People’s Mujahedin Organization (MKO) now headquartered near Paris with a base of operations in Manez, Albania. The Mujahedin have also attracted a large measure of international support across the political spectrum. Among their supporters are such figures as John Bolton, now President Donald Trump's National Security Advisor, and former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The movement’s top leader was Massoud Rajavi, the man who broke with Khomeini and transferred his headquarters to France in 1981. Now, however, the MKO is led by Rajavi’s third wife Maryam Azodanlu who has been chosen by the movement as the next president of a future Iranian republic.
Another ex-revolutionary group now opposed to the regime is the People’s Fedayeen Guerrilla Organization, a Marxist-Leninist group itself split into two factions one still supporting the regime under the leadership of the London-based Farrokh Negahdar.
Also emerging from the pro-Khomeini camp but now opposition it is the Iran National Front (Jibheh Melli Iran) which broke with the Islamic regime in 1982 to return to its original roots as a political force continuing the line of Dr. Muhammad Mussadeq. It is now led by Dr. Hussein Mussavian with Professor Hermidas Bavand as spokesman.
The front has just created what it calls “The Council of Iranian Elites” and it is an informal alliance with the Iran National Movement (Nehzat Melli Iran) group founded by Mehdi Bazragan, Khomeini’s first prime minister. The movement is now led by Abdul-Ali Bazargan, the late prime minister’s brother.
The Tudeh (Masses) Party has also broken with the Khomeinist regime which it originally supported and is trying to repackage itself as a social-democratic outfit closer to Western European left than the defunct Soviet Communism.
There are also six other Communist parties under different names, mostly based in Canada and Sweden and for years engaged in talks about uniting with one another to form a broader mass movement.
On the right of the spectrum is the Union for Democracy in Iran (UDI) led by Jawad Khadem, a businessman and former minister in the last government formed under the Shah. The group harks back to Shapour Bakhtiar’s brief tenure as prime minister and his historic links with Mossadeq. Also on the right are two nationalist parties, the Pan Iranist, founded by Mohsen Pezeshkpour, and the Ira Nation Party (Hizb Mellat Iran) founded by Dariush Foruhar, Minister of Labour Khomeini’s first Cabinet. Both are now dedicated to regime change and moving closer to the monarchist groups.
On the center-right are a number of parties and groups campaigning for the creation of a secular republican system in Iran. The most active among these is Secular Republicans Movement of Iran (SRMI) led by the literary critic Esmail Nuri-Ala and political scientist Hassan Etemadi.
The segment of the opposition that was hostile to the Islamic Revolution from the start is dominated by the monarchist groups which are themselves divided not numerous ideological and political shades.
The most formal of these is the so-called Iran National Council set up by Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, the heir of the Iranian throne.
Pahlavi says that while he would be ready to serve as monarch he would leave the decision regarding the system of government the Iranian people in a popular referendum.
Another group is the Supporters of Parliamentary Monarchy Movement which campaigns for the restoration of monarchy based on the 1906 Constitution. It has a collective leadership structure that includes prominent scholar Nasser Enteqa’a and former naval commander Nasser Maymand.
Also in the monarchist camp is the Constitutional Party of Iran (CPI) which describes itself as liberal-democrat. It was founded in 1994 by former Information Minister Darius Homayun and is currently led by Khosrow Beit-Allahi and Professor Shahin Fatemi.
Another active group is the Democratic Front for Constitutional Monarchy led by former Interior Minister Assad-Allah Nasr Isfahani.
Gauging the actual strength of the monarchist movement isn’t easy if only because supporters of restoration are organized in numerous groups both inside and outside Iran often with no formal organizational links with one another let alone a central leadership structure. Their loose structure protects them against an effective crackdown by the regime. At the same time, however, it also prevents them from weighing effectively on any future coalition talks aimed at creating an interim government.
The opposition also includes a number of parties based on ethnic minorities.
The most important among these are three Kurdish-based parties. The oldest and possibly the largest is the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPIK) which is now headquartered in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Its strategy is to fight for a democratic Iran in which Kurds, accounting for some 2.5 million of the population, in two provinces where they form a majority. The DPIK originally supported Khomeini and helped him seize power in Tehran. But it broke with the ayatollah in 1982. Later, regime agents assassinated the party’s charismatic leader Abdul-Rahman Qassemlou and his successor Sadeq Sharfkandi.
Another Kurdish-based party is the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan led by Abdullah Mohtadi. Komala, now based in Suleymanieh in Iraq, was formed by splinter groups from the DPIK and casts itself as a left of center movement.
Both the DPIK and Komala have recently converted to the cause of regime change in Tehran, abandoning years of efforts to negotiate some deal with the Islamic Republic.
There are also three Kurdish based groups that demand outright secession from Iran and the formation of a Kurdish state including all Kurds in the Middle East. The largest of these is the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the Iranian branch of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
There are also a number of smaller secessionist groups operating in Kurdistan but so far with little in the shape of an audience.
Thanks to social media and the presence of at least 30 satellite or Internet TV channels operating from Europe and North America a number of individuals have also succeeded in finding an audience without having organizations of their own.
Among them is Abol-Hassan Banisadr the Khomeinist regime’s first president who has been in exile near Paris since 1981. Also in exile but with an audience in Iran is Abdul-Karim Soroush, an Islamist scholar who in 1980 led the purge of Iranian universities ordered by Khomeini. Having started as a critic of the regime he has more recently extended his critical observations to the question of religion as a whole. In a similar position is Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar, a former member of the Islamic Majlis during Khomeini’s rule, but now a critic of the regime based in the United States.
Others who, thanks to television, have secured an audience include Bahram Moshiri, a critic of religion as a whole, and Manouk Khodabkhshian who advocates a secular democratic system. On the left is Parviz Dastmalchi who has found a growing audience with his critique of Islamist thinkers including Ali Shariati, the cult guru of many Khomeinists.
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