Iranian minister of intelligence Mahmoud Alawi warned in recent days of efforts by different overseas Iranian opposition groups to form an alliance against Iran’s regime. Alawi issued the warning during a meeting in the Iranian parliament. In response to a question by a lawmaker on whether the regime is prepared to address developments that could endanger the country’s security, the minister said: “The enemies of the Islamic regime are seeking to get closer, unite and support each other under the auspice of some foreign countries.”
Alawi added that Iranian opposition groups from a wide spectrum have held over 64 political events over the past two years.
Iranian commentators pointed out that the minister’s comments are nothing new. Alawi’s latest comments came in the aftermath of attempts by organisations affiliated with various groups from Iran’s non-Persian minorities to forge an alliance with leftist groups elsewhere which have shown solidarity with the plight of these peoples in Iran. Others have warned that the minister’s remarks may indicate a new upcoming wave of crackdowns against political activists at home and an attempt to threaten opposition groups overseas.
In addition to these conclusions from Iranian analysts, it also seems that the comments of the minister during the parliamentary hearing were made in order to convince the parliament to increase the annual budget allocated to the intelligence service in order to expand the scope of its domestic operations; following the meeting, the intelligence ministry’s budget was increased by 31 per cent on the previous year’s funding.
Given the rapid developments taking place within Iran and from overseas groups and the range of political demands, from calling for reforms from within the regime to toppling it, or demanding that Iran be divided into separate states according to the ethnicity and political history of the various component groups or turned into a federation, it seems timely to ask how many factions and entities are associated with opposition to the regime, what sort of spectrum they represent, and which kind of opposition the Iranian minister fears most.
It is known that the diverse bodies making up the Iranian opposition which have maintained a long political and military struggle against the regime did not appear simultaneously with the revolution, having existed long before that took place. Indeed, most of the groups and factions opposing the current regime participated in the original 1979 revolution against the Shah’s oppressive rule and contributed to its success. After the Mullahs hijacked power and turned the state into a theocracy, however, opting for further repression instead of dialogue and sharing power, the other parties that had risen up for freedom were once again marginalised, with the new oppressors unleashing a brutal crackdown on non-Persian people and preventing them from deciding their own fate. The repression practised against freedom of speech and the overt racism against non-Persian people contributed to creating a spirit of opposition deep-rooted in the conscience of citizens, who have stood against the regime in whatever way they can for the past four decades.
Other former opposition factions, however, merged themselves into the structure of the clerical media, conceding that opposing the regime was unlikely to be successful and instead choosing to describe themselves as reformist opposition. Here, we’re not focusing on these former dissidents, who are now an integral part of the political framework and of the ruling elite in Iran, who cover a spectrum of Iranian leftists and of Persian ethnonationalists.
Indeed, it seems that many of the factions who opted to abandon the earlier demands to oust the regime have instead embraced strongly ethnonationalist and totalitarian socialist ideologies, preferring to adopt the reactionary policies also promoted by the regime of romanticising the former Persian Empire and the long-held dreams amongst nationalists of its revival. This prompted these groups to adopt political behaviour which suggests a sharp contradiction for some between their supposedly revolutionary stance and their political practices.
In parallel with systematising repression and terrorism, the Iranian regime promised the Persian ethnonationalist political forces that it would work to resurrect the Persian empire, albeit under a modified identity, as a Shiite empire led by Persians through ‘Persianising’ the Middle East.
This plan was plainly announced in 2005 by the Secretary of the regime’s ‘Expediency Discernment Council of the System’ and former commander of IRGC forces Mohsen Rezai, when he ran for presidential elections. In an election campaign speech, Rezai said, “We will make Iran the power of the Middle East, and we will impose the Farsi language as the language of the Middle East.” This prompted the ethnonationalist political forces and broad spectrums of the leftist political forces to abandon their previous objectives of toppling the regime, giving up their previous hostility in favour of accepting or downplaying the regime’s theocratic ideology in exchange for supporting its vision of establishing or re-establishing a vast Persian empire extending from the coasts of the Mediterranean to the borders with India and from the Caucuses in the north to the southern bank of the Gulf in the south in order to make this a fully Iranian-controlled waterway according to the plans of the Iranian policymakers. This plan has been announced on more than one occasion and by several Iranian politicians and policymakers in addition to Rezai.
The first contemporary event that allowed the regime to begin implementation of this policy was the Iraq-Iran war, which laid the foundations for the Khomeinists to start work on putting their plan into operation. Iran’s regime immediately set to work on manipulating the war for both nationalist and sectarian mobilisation. During the eight-year war in which the two sides were exchanging fire, artillery shells and air bombings, the sectarian Iranian media launched its own continuous offensive to win over the minds of the regime’s opponents, with many exiles in the West who previously opposed the theocratic leadership becoming cheerleaders for it under the guise of defending the homeland and supporting a policy of nationalist expansionism.
This promotion of aggressive ethnonationalist propaganda has continued ever since, becoming the dominant narrative of Iranian leftist and ethnonationalist forces to this day. Most of the Iranian leftists and nationalists continued practising highly contradictory, deeply authoritarian politics under the threadbare guise of pragmatism.
Factions representing two other broad fronts have continued to oppose the regime and to call for its overthrow by any means possible, however. The first of these is made up of groups and parties representing Iran’s non-Persian minorities; although these groups collectively make up the majority of Iran’s population, the various opposition factions have largely maintained their own nationalist affiliations and different political agendas. The second front is the far more unified predominantly Persian People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI). Working separately, groups from both these fronts – Iran’s minorities and the PMOI – opened two fierce fronts of war against the Iranian regime from the Iraqi territory during the Iran-Iraq war and have continued to push back against the regime to this day.
It should be noted that Persian ethnonationalists and leftists not affiliated with either the outlawed PMOI and minority opposition groups, all of which are proscribed in Iran, have continued to shape their policy platform around gradual change to the regime leading ultimately to its transformation or dissolution, arguing that it should be reformed from within. Although they have continuously argued for such reforms for decades, the minor changes achieved have taken a long time to emerge.
Several leaders within Iranian left-wing groups tolerated by the regime, including Farkh Nakhdar of the Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, have stated literally that they do not aspire to change the regime but instead struggle to prompt the regime to change its behaviour in domestic policies only. Like other leaders of leftist parties, Nakhdar has written hundreds of articles voicing ardent support for the regime’s foreign policy.
Like these influential leftists, Iran’s Persian ethnonationalist leaders have also become keen supporters of the regime’s foreign policy and belligerence towards the West, justifying its involvement in wars and its various interventions in the Middle East under the pretext of fighting imperialism.
Most members of Iranian leftist parties currently living in Europe will show up at the Iranian embassies in the countries where they live to cast their ballots in Iran’s presidential elections held every four years. All these party members have loyally supported the Mullahs’ regime in their articles published regularly in regime-backed overseas media outlets or through writing for Western publications and appearing on Western broadcast media.
Iranian leftists’ and nationalists’ embrace of the narrative of regime reform rather than of any efforts to overthrow the regime has helped to maintain an authoritarian Persian supremacism and triumphalism which has been the defining motif of successive regimes, both secular and theocratic, over the past century of Iranian political history. This is also seen even in Iranian pro-monarchy and nationalist activists who oppose the current regime, who share the same view that Iran is made of one people, Iranians, speaking only one language, Farsi. Despite the fact that the majority of Iran’s population consists of a mosaic of different ethnicities, including Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochis and Turkmen, no consideration is given to affording equal rights to the non-Persian peoples. This has prompted several of the opposition organisations and parties representing these minorities to reverse their previous support for being part of a broader Iranian opposition, instead opting for the right to self-determination and independence under different slogans.
It seems, however, that the regime has remained impervious to this ever-strengthening wind of change, maintaining its strongly authoritarian, theocratic and ethnonationalist stance up to the present time, despite the grave crises it faces politically and economically. Its rejection of any serious reforms has been shown in its brutal crushing of centrist groups such as the Green Movement in 2009 which was preceded by student protests, along with its aforementioned stance during the eight-year war with Iraq, among other examples. The reason for this is evident and straightforward: there is still a significant gap between the aspirations of these centralist forces who simply seek reform of the current regime and other opposition groups who aspire to move away from authoritarianism and change the regime completely.
In other words, there are limits to the capacity of any joint action between the parties and organisations representing the ethnic minorities who collectively comprise the majority of the Iranian population and the Persian parties who view themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian people, with this discord handicapping and paralysing any serious efforts to either reform or oust the regime.
The inability of the leading Persian opposition parties, even centralist ones, to adopt any political platform that clearly and guarantees the rights of non-Persian minorities to any degree of autonomy or self-governance has led to frustration for groups and parties representing these minorities, creating an impasse that hobbles the hopes for any real progress towards creation of a large-scale unified opposition.
While some smaller groups and parties among the Persian opposition are willing to compromise with their counterparts representing the various minorities and parties, the refusal on the part of the larger opposition to support minority rights has led an increasing number of minority parties and groups to demand the right to full self-determination for their regions via various platforms.
Persian parties’ and groups’ summary rejection of minorities’ demands for protection of minority rights and for some degree of autonomy in any form, whether in the form of limited federalism or full independence, have effectively prevented the development of any effective unity against the regime among the various opposition parties in Iran and in exile.
Despite the failure to form a broader anti-regime opposition to date, recent years have seen far greater unity among the opposition groups, parties and organisations representing Iran’s different minorities, which now have stronger ties than at any time in the last century. Ironically, this increasing spirit of cooperation between non-Persian minorities is also drawing support and solidarity from the smaller Persian opposition groups, although the larger centrist Persian opposition groups are attempting to quell this nascent support and to deter other Persians from considering any political unification with these minority parties, despite their shared opposition to the regime. These larger Persian parties are also intent on attempting to co-opt the minority groups and to divert their efforts to the larger parties’ own interests.
Despite being slow to wake to the domestic unhappiness with the current leadership, Iran’s regime is steadily realising that this is no minor movement but a massive groundswell of opposition resulting from several factors, including increasing anger at the regime’s repressive policies, its unjustified insistence on continuing with its nuclear program, and the economic crisis which the people are fully aware is mostly the result of the regime’s massive expenditure on its military and regional proxy militias and terror groups and on various regional wars, despite the regime’s efforts to attribute all the financial hardships to Western sanctions.
For these reasons, the regime cannot now continue, as it did previously, to take it for granted that any opposition will comply with its demands and acquiesce so that it can continue its ruinously expensive expansionist policy across the Middle East or use its posturing against the USA to divert public anger by positioning itself as the ‘champion of anti-imperialism’
The regime is increasingly aware that the non-Persian minorities, especially given their growing unity, form a formidable bloc and a major force of opposition, and that these groups are not about to abandon their struggle for freedom, especially since their grievances spring from a desire for freedom from decades-long institutionalised injustice, oppression and annihilation.
The leadership in Tehran is also well aware that the majority-Persian PMOI is uninterested in any negotiated political process or compromise with the regime, but is working for the complete overthrow of the Khomeinists’ rule, whether through voluntary dismantling of the regime or by force.
It is increasingly clear today, with growing numbers of political and intellectual forums focusing on resolving the current divisions and making efforts to forge alliances among regime opponents both from the non-Persian minorities and Persian groups, that Iran’s regime is skating on very thin ice; the regime is very well aware that increasing unity can threaten its already shaky hold on power, thus the massive increase in the budget of the intelligence ministry. Knowing that the current crisis leaves it on the edge of an abyss, the regime’s greatest fear is what might happen in the case of consensus and real unity between the PMOI and other opposition groups.
Nouri Hamzeh is Ahwazi freelance journalist based in Sweden, and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights. He writes about Iranian affairs including the plight of ethnic minorities mainly Ahwazis. He can be found on Twitter at:https://twitter.com/NouriHamzeh?lang=en-gb
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.