Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The escalating tensions and the prospect of war between the United States and Iran have been met with substantial skepticism from Congress and U.S. allies, even by President Trump himself. While the United States is certainly justified in wanting to protect its personnel, allies and interests from alleged Iranian threats, it would be more productive and strategic in the long term — and far more popular at home and abroad — to find ways to empower civil society within Iran to generate real political change.
High-level members of the Trump administration and others opposed to Iran’s regime have long seen some outside Iranian opposition groups as saviors for the oppressed Iranian people. Unfortunately, these groups offer little hope for the future: they lack intellectual rigor, suffer from deep political divisions and are missing organizational competence on the ground.
Groups such as the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) and the Iranian monarchy-in-exile feed the wildest dreams of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. They are seen as key players in a rosy scenario that envisions the wholesale abdication of the ruling regime, an end to Tehran’s quest for regional hegemony and Iran’s transformation into a liberal secular democracy, friendly toward the United States and its allies in the region.
U.S. officials are eager to endorse their vision. John Bolton, the national security adviser, and the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, are ardent supporters of the MEK and have given speeches at their rallies. “There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centered in this room today,” Bolton said at a 2017 MEK event in Paris. “The behavior and objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
There is a resurgence in nostalgia for the “ancien régime” of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi among not only the Persian diaspora around the world but also within Iran. In one astonishing example, Persian social media has carried messages of “bargard Shah” (Shah! Come back!), the rhythm of which is similar to the Islamic Revolution’s most famous slogan, “marg bar Shah” (death to Shah).
In this environment, Reza Pahlavi, the 58-year-old son of the shah, has emerged as one of the most conspicuous characters in the Iranian opposition-in-exile. Just 18 years old when the Islamic Revolution deposed his family’s monarchy and he fled the country, Pahlavi, who calls himself the “crown prince of Iran,” is a natural foil to the current regime, a symbol for what Iranians lost in the 1979 revolution and what they aspire to in an ideal government.
But despite his efforts to be recognized as “a national figure,” the heir to the throne has yet to demonstrate any of the skills needed to marshal an opposition, much less lead a country. He has not articulated a convincing ideology that would guide a nation after the fall of the Islamic republic. He has failed so far to bring other opposition groups under his umbrella, including secular political elites and intellectuals. His past is devoid of any successful organizational initiatives, and he has not demonstrated an ability to mobilize people on the ground.
But the MEK and Pahlavi serve a purpose in current U.S. policy: They lend the administration’s campaign a sense of Iranian support. The point is to try to convince Iranians that maximum pressure is meant only to affect the regime, and not its people.
Iran’s regime has its fair share of vulnerabilities: a crisis of legitimacy, a lack of base supporters and mounting economic hardship. But it will survive, if only because the opposition both in Iranian civil society and in exile are weaker.
Neither the United States, nor any other foreign government, can or should directly help the opposition become an effective government-in-waiting. Such support would feed into the regime’s propaganda that these groups are “foreign agents” and could very well be the kiss of death for any sort of popular opposition to the Islamic republic.
Instead, the international community must take steps to empower civil society within Iran and protect it from being systematically persecuted and oppressed.
The Islamic republic’s record with civil society and human rights is abysmal. The U.S. and European governments should shed light on the treatment of marginalized groups inside Iran and the endemic corruption within powerful “foundations” and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has siphoned what is left of Iran’s wealth into the hands of a chosen few. This is one Iran initiative on which all Americans and their European allies would agree.
A strong and well-organized civil society inside Iran could effectively pave the way toward slow and incremental reform from theocratic despotism to liberal democracy and finally shepherd Iran into the community of nations.