Research & Analysis

The best deal for the U.S. isn’t a new nuclear agreement, but an entirely new Iran

The old way of dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran will no longer work.

Alireza Nader

The old way of dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran will no longer work. The regime’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability is not only a threat to U.S. national security interests, but global peace. And merely engaging the regime and hoping for its evolution is completely unrealistic.

The regime has announced that it will no longer abide by key restrictions imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. The regime is now enriching uranium above the level allowed under the agreement and has indicated it could easily increase enrichment levels to 20%, bringing it closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

Critics have blamed the Trump administration for the regime’s belligerent behavior, not only on the nuclear issue, but also for attacks carried out on international shipping in the Persian Gulf. While the current phase of confrontation was precipitated by the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in mid-2018, the Obama administration’s Iran policy deserves much blame for the worsening international crisis.

The nuclear agreement was built on a weak foundation. While restricting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, it nevertheless contained major flaws, including dangerous sunset clauses and toleration of the regime’s ballistic missile program. Even worse, the Obama administration’s policy failed to contain and roll back the regime’s expanding regional influence, particularly in Syria and Iraq, which allowed the Islamic Republic to build a formidable military infrastructure on Israel’s northern border.

But perhaps more tragically, the Obama administration did not support the 2009 massive Green Movement political uprising. A time of great vulnerability for the regime, the uprising provided the U.S. with an ideal opportunity to further undermine a deeply hated regime and gain even more U.S. leverage in nuclear negotiations. Instead, millions of Iranians protesting the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were met with a stony silence from Washington, a decision senior Obama officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later said they regretted.

Encouraged by the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, Washington falsely hoped that the nuclear agreement would moderate the regime’s behavior and lead to real reform in Iran. Neither happened. Instead, Rouhani helped expand the regime’s power across the Middle East and horrific human rights abuses in Iran.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of U.S. sanctions has had a devastating impact on Iran’s economy and the regime’s ability to finance its malign activities across the Middle East. The U.S. withdrawal has put the regime in a corner in which it must choose between its destructive activities, including building up its nuclear enrichment program, or potentially face a massive revolt much like the 2009 uprising.

The regime is already the weakest and most unpopular it has ever been within Iran and throughout the Middle East. In December 2017, more than 100 Iranian cities witnessed demonstrations calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. Since then, a broad barandazan (regime overthrow) movement has emerged that not only rejects the absolute rule of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the concept of reforms and “moderation” espoused by such figures as former President Mohammad Khatami and Rouhani. Many of the demonstrations since 2017 have even called for the return to Iran of Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, in exile since 1979.

The regime remains weak, but also quite dangerous. The march toward nuclear weapons capability and attacks on international shipping are heavy-handed attempts to gain more leverage in any possible new negotiations.

Khamenei has only one real card to play: the threat of war to scare the American public, Europe and major oil customers such as Japan into pressuring the Trump administration or a possible future Democratic administration to return to the JCPOA. Almost all of the Democratic presidential candidates have urged a U.S. return to the nuclear agreement.

But a return to the JCPOA or a new nuclear agreement that does not address sunset clauses that allow the Islamic Republic a full-scale industrial-scale enrichment program once the agreement ends; the missile program; and the regime’s malign behavior is guaranteed to fail. U.S. policy toward Iran cannot be just about the nuclear program. It must take into account 40 years of unrelenting regime hostility and the demands of the Iranian people for freedom from Khamenei’s dictatorship.

The Trump administration and its Democratic opponents would be wise to demand not only greater nuclear restrictions, but fundamental political changes entailing freedom and prosperity for all Iranians, not just a select group of Revolutionary Guards and ruling clerics. The Islamic Republic, much like the corrupt and bankrupt former Soviet Union, is destined to fail.

The U.S. has a moral duty and the strategic imperative to help Iranians in their peaceful civil disobedience campaign by providing rhetorical and material support to dissidents. The fight against the Khamenei regime’s tyranny is in principle the same as the fight against Soviet tyranny. The best deal for the United States is not a new nuclear agreement, but an entirely new Iran.

Protesters outside the Iranian Embassy in London. (Ben Stansall / AFP/Getty Images)

July 11, 2019

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Ali Khamenei
  • Trump administration
  • Supporting Iranian Voices
  • regime change

Alireza Nader is founder and chief executive of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

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Persian Gulf Showdown

The U-S and Iran seem closer to war than ever before with the U-S beefing up its military presence in the Persian Gulf.

Alireza Nader

The U-S and Iran seem closer to war than ever before, with the U-S beefing up its military presence in the Persian Gulf and Iran's leadership striking a defiant tone. The Crisis Next Door's Jason Brooks digs into what all of this means with Alireza Nader, founder and CEO of New Iran, a Washington D-C think tank dedicated to research and analysis of Iran.

May 15, 2019

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Ali Khamenei
  • Trump administration
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
  • Persian Gulf

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington



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OPINION: Venezuela And Iran Are More Similar Than You Think

The collapse of Venezuelan society under the dictatorial and socialist Maduro regime cannot fail to remind us of Iran under the Islamic Republic.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Tehran, November 23, 2015.

Alireza Nader

The collapse of Venezuelan society under the dictatorial and socialist Maduro regime cannot fail to remind us of Iran under the Islamic Republic. Like Maduro, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has put the enrichment of his mafia clan and an exploitative revolutionary ideology before the needs of the Iranian people. Like Venezuela, Iran is experiencing black outs, water and food shortages, and collapse of order in parts of the country. And like Maduro, Khamenei uses the Basij, literally meaning Collectivos-or Maduro’s irregular armed forces- to instill fear in the population. But there are some key differences between the two as well.

If Maduro falls, the U.S. can learn much from the successes and failures of its strategy and how they can be applied to Iran. Many Iranians, much like Venezuelans, are ready to rid themselves of their dictatorial regime, as mass protests, strikes and civil disobedience have shown in the last decade. And they welcome American support. As difficult as it may seem now, the path can open toward a future in which both the democratic Iranian opposition and its American and international friends can play a decisive role in bringing freedom to Iran.

The key obstacle to change in Iran has been and will always be the massive and effective security forces. Khamenei spends billions upon billions of dollars on the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij, Law Enforcement Forces, and other official and unofficial security and repressive organizations. The Iraqi Hashd al Shaabi and Lebanese Hezbollah have also been recruited to maintain order in southwestern Iran, a region which recently experienced devastating floods.

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Khamenei has managed to create terror throughout Iran and maintain his rule through brute force despite widespread civil resistance. Maduro may be brutal, but Khamenei’s regime is the master of terror and violence. International organizations, including UN bodies, have amply recorded the gross violations of human rights for four decades of the Islamic Republic.

Yet like Venezuela’s military, the Iranian military, including the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional army, the Artesh, are reported to be experiencing deep dissatisfaction and even the inability to pay salaries of rank and file soldiers. Many members of the Artesh, a draftee armed force, are reported to be malnourished and even homeless.

The Guards always fair better, but the virtual economic blockade being placed on Iran due to the regime’s support for terrorism, among many other harmful policies, could translate into widespread dissatisfaction even within the inner sanctum of Khamenei’s Praetorian Guard. Lest we forget, there is precedent for defections within the highest echelons of the regime, as General Ali Reza Asgari’s 2007 “disappearance”, widely reported to have been a defection - showed. It took some time, but eventually senior members of Maduro’s military did peel away. So may some of Khamenei’s top commanders, if the situation gets so bad in Iran that they see no other way out.

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Finally, Venezuela is lucky to have Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márque, the opposition leader who has been recognized by more than fifty countries as President of Venezuela. A fearless young man, Guaidó has become the brains and leading spirit of the revolt against Maduro’s dictatorship.

Iran does not have a Guido, yet. But it does have a widespread and well networked opposition that may not always work in synch, but nevertheless keeps hammering at the legitimacy of Khamenei’s regime. And there are prominent personalities and groups within the opposition who are playing effective roles, including Prince Reza Pahlavi, Masih Alinejad, the new opposition group Iran Revival, countless women freedom activists, environmental activists, labor organizations, teachers’ unions, students, and even farmers, truckers, and gay rights activists.

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Khamenei is still strong. His men have the guns. But every day Iranian women refuse to comply with the compulsory hijab, crowds rescue them from being harassed by the morality police, and random dissidents shout slogans against the regime and in support of Pahlavi. Iranians want fundamental change- the disbanding of the Islamic Republic once and for all, to be replaced by a government of their own choosing. This can be achieved through an open and free national referendum, free elections, and an entirely new constitution. But Khamenei must go first.

When the time comes and Iranians pour into the streets again, Washington should unequivocally side with the democratic opposition and its representatives. America must also leave a door open for defecting regime officials while it crafts a way to empower Iranians seeking freedom for their country. Iranians are closely watching Washington’s reaction to popular uprisings across the world, from Sudan to Algeria and Venezuela. Success in achieving freedom in Venezuela will boost Iranians’ enthusiasm and hope for positive change. But the U.S. should be less hesitant in siding with forces that will determine the future of Iran. Those forces will burst forth more powerful than ever before once Khamenei and the Guards’ tight grip on Iran weakens. That moment has not come yet, but the path to it is wide open.

May 8, 2019

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Iranian Opposition
  • President Nicolas Maduro
  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
  • Venezuela

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington

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Bringing Shiite Militias Into Iran Shows Khamenei's Weakness

Iraqi militia entering Iran in April 2019 "to assist in flood relief".

Iraqi militia entering Iran in April 2019 "to assist in flood relief".

Alireza Nader

Recent floods in Iran have killed dozens and displaced possibly millions of Iranians. Instead of helping them, most of the Islamic Republic’s time and energy has gone into sending foreign Hashd al Shaabi and Hezbollah fighters into Khuzestan.

These forces have engaged in light flood repair for show, but in reality they lack the equipment or skills to do any serious flood relief. Instead, they’re in southwestern Iran because Ayatollah Khamenei fears a revolt. The Hashd and Hezbollah do what they do best: intimidate, harass, and if need be, torture and kill. But their presence in Iran shows a critical weakness for Khamenei as well. And it may prove one of the bigger mistakes he has made.

The floods and the regime’s unwillingness and incompetence have led to widespread anger against the regime in Khuzestan and Lorestan provinces. Many of the Iranians affected are ethnic minorities such as Arabs, Lors, Bakhtiaris, and many others. The Arabs have in particular been a subject of the harshest of discriminations.

Although Khuzestan houses Iran’s oil wealth, Arab Iranians have received very little of it. They are poor and neglected, but still fierce and resilient. Like millions of other Iranians, they have taken to the streets for the past sixteen months in protest against a corrupt and mafia like regime. No wonder the Islamic Republic establishment is afraid. Not only Arab Iranians, but the Lors, are some of the fiercest and most independent peoples that make up the Iranian nation.

Thousands of foreign forces appear to have been allowed into Iran by Khamenei. Many come from some of the most violent regional armed conflicts; both Hezbollah and the Hashd are used by Khamenei to control Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Iraq. Hezbollah has been the vanguard of the Assad regime’s genocidal quest to suppress Syria’s opposition; the Hashd have been responsible for religious cleansing and systematic executions throughout Iraq.

But their presence on Iranian soil shows that Khamenei may not fully trust his own security forces, including the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards. Iranians are less likely to kill their own brothers and sisters while mercenaries like Hezbollah and the Hashd are less caring of Iranians.

The regime has faced the floods at the worst time possible. It is under severe economic pressure and could soon see a near total economic blockade through sanctions. The regime can hardly afford the estimated nearly ten billion dollars in flood damages. And the vast majority of Iranians want Khamenei and his regime gone forever. But they fear an uncertain future if the regime falls.

America should put as much as sanctions pressure on Hezbollah and the Hashd as possible. They’re the enemies and occupiers of the Iranian people. The Hahshd in particular should come under greater sanctions as the U.S. pressures Baghdad to reign in pro-Khamenei groups. Iran may be strong in Iraq, but its influence has weakened in the face of popular Iraqi riots against Khamenei’s regime. The U.S. should also launch an information operation campaign both against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hashd in Iraq. Many Lebanese and Iraqis share Iranians’ hatred of Khamenei and his mercenary armies.

As the U.S. puts pressure on the regime’s external mercenaries, a closer look at the regime’s lobbies and influence networks in America, Canada, and Europe are urgently warranted. For too long, many of these groups have engaged in shady activities trying to sway public opinion and manipulate politicians.

The future presence of Khamenei’s mercenaries wouldn’t be a surprise in bigger cities such as Shiraz, Kermanshah, Esfahan, or even in Tehran for that matter. But if there is one thing that angers Iranians, it is the presence of foreign occupiers on their soil. Iran has conquered and been conquered in the last three thousand years, but it has always remained Iranian.

Washington is wise to mimic the cries of Iranians striving to free their nation of forty years of tyranny. An emphasis on America’s opposition to the foreign occupation of Iran would reassure Iranians struggling for a future free of tyranny and abyssal darkness.

More persistent, robust and revealing journalism from foreign based Farsi media including US international broadcasters, regular outreach to the Iranian democratic opposition, and targeting of regime lobbies and former officials in the West are likely to be steps welcomed by Iranians seeking freedom. The message: Iran may be occupied now, but it won’t be occupied forever.

April 10, 2019

  • Ali Khamenei
  • Iraqi Militia
  • Shiite Militias
  • Iraqi militia entering Iran

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington.

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The foreign policies of a free Iran

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy has been defined by an ideology promoting revolution, designed to transform the Middle East.

Alireza Nader

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy has been defined by an ideology promoting revolution, designed to transform the Middle East. Under its Islamist regime, Iran has fought America, Israel, and much of the Arab world, in opposition to the national interests of Iran and the Iranian people. The Islamic Republic may be dominant in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but Iran, itself, has been devastated by decades of policies that have led to its international isolation, and economic and ecological collapse.

Under sanctions because of the regime’s behavior, Iran is unable to update its energy industry or even sell much of its oil. It is also experiencing water and food shortages, despite being, potentially, one of the richest countries on earth. While Iranians go thirsty and hungry, Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime has spent billions of dollars on wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, that don’t serve the national interests of the Iranian people.

However, Iranians are not destined to live under an expansionist revolutionary regime. For more than one year, the people have come into the streets to demand an end to the Islamic Republic’s costly involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and beyond, shouting, “My life is for Iran, not for Syria and Lebanon.” Another popular slogan is, “The real enemy is here (in Iran), they lie when they say it’s America.”

The nationwide campaign of civil disobedience holds much promise, especially if it receives global support, as the anti-Maduro movement has in Venezuela.

For Iranians are no longer eager to accept false reforms or superficial diplomatic engagement that prolongs the regime; they are demanding the end of a political system which actively works against their interests.

Facing deep popular dissatisfaction and an economic implosion, the regime’s elite, including members of the Khomeini and Rafsanjani clans, increasingly speak of the regime’s collapse and overthrow by the Iranian people. In anticipation, many of the elite have moved their wealth and families abroad.

The freeing of Iran from the Islamic Republic’s grasp could not only lead to the revival of Iran as a successful nation, but could also dramatically transform relations with the US, Israel, and much of the Arab world.

In order to succeed, Iran must shed its revolutionary ideology and pursue policies that prioritize economic growth, foreign investment, environmental preservation, and peace with neighbors, coupled with a truly defensive foreign policy.

A free and democratic Iran would not benefit by continuing its dangerous enmity with several nations, including Israel, where both countries can cooperate in areas that are mutually beneficial to them, such as resolving Iran’s water crisis and combatting extremism.

First and foremost, a free Iran should abandon its support for sectarian revolutionary groups, such as Hezbollah. The Lebanese group is an extension of the Islamic Republic in the Levant. If Iranians are to free Iran from Khamenei, they must also free themselves from the regime’s tentacles across the region.

A free Iran would have little use for the Assad regime or Shiite militias that dominate Iraq, or violent Palestinian groups, such as Hamas.

Iran’s abandonment of its revolutionary ideology and regional proxies could dramatically improve relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

Iranians and Arabs have been rivals for a millennia, but the present dangerous rivalry between the two peoples is largely due to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary agenda.

Iranian-Arab relations should be defined by open markets, trade, investment, and cooperation in saving the region from economic devastation. But that doesn’t mean that Iran would become weak and defenseless. As Iran grows economically, it will have to naturally rebuild its dilapidated conventional military force and replace equipment purchased from the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, it makes little sense for Iran to pursue weapons of mass destruction in the absence of a credible threat; the nuclear program has cost Iranians hundreds of billions of dollars, much of it due to sanctions and Iran’s international isolation.

Iran will always be a major power in the Middle East; its history, size, and economic potential make it destined to be a key regional and, perhaps, global player.

Iran and its neighbors don’t have to agree on everything; but cooperation and competition must be pursued peacefully in promotion of the welfare of Iranians. Only freedom from the Islamic Republic can make a peaceful and prosperous Iran a reality.

March 2, 2019

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington

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Iran Is Committing Suicide by Dehydration

The Islamic Republic’s corruption is draining the country of its most precious resource: water.

The Islamic Republic’s corruption is draining the country of its most precious resource: water.

Nik Kowsar & Alireza Nader

For more than a year, since December 2017, protests and civil disobedience have been a fixture of life in Iran. Many of the political and economic grievances fueling this unrest will be familiar to foreign observers. But one major reason for these disturbances has gone overlooked: the country’s dire water shortages.

One cause of this water crisis is changing weather patterns. But most of the blame belongs to the Iranian government’s incompetent and corrupt water management. And so-called moderates and reformists, such as former President Mohammad Khatami and current President Hassan Rouhani, are to blame as much as any other Iranian officials for this disaster.

Over the past 40 years, the regime’s entrenched corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement of environmental and natural resources have brought Iran to the edge of disaster. In 2013, the former head of Iran’s environmental protection agency reported that 85 percent of the country’s groundwater was gone, while the population had doubled in the last 40 years. According to Issa Kalantari, a former agriculture minister and current head of the environmental protection agency, millions of Iranians will be forced to migrate to more developed countries, especially in Europe, if the water crisis is not resolved in 20 to 30 years.

Before the 1979 revolution, Iran’s population was less than 34 million, and its renewable water resources were around 135 billion cubic meters. In the last few years, however, as the population reached more than 80 million, the renewable water resources have been reduced to almost 80 billion cubic meters due to lower precipitation and higher evaporation. Meanwhile, the consumption rate per capita has risen. This is an unsustainable trend heading toward a tragic conclusion.

But the story of Iran’s water crisis began before the revolution when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi nationalized Iran’s water resources. For more than 3,000 years, Iranians avoided overexploiting aquifers by relying on indigenous pieces of infrastructure called qanats—slightly inclining underground canals for transferring water within arid and semiarid lands without exposing water to the sun. But the shah introduced to Iran the use of deep well-drilling technology and powerful motor pumps that began depleting the country’s aquifers.

The early years of the revolution made matters worse. Several Iranian water and environmental experts warned the revolutionary government about an expected decline in annual precipitation as a result of climate change, which would have a severe impact on surface water and groundwater resources. To mitigate the effects, they proposed plans for reducing water consumption and diversifying food production. They also suggested shifting water management policies toward recharging aquifers, designing better irrigation techniques, and pursuing more sustainable policies for the agriculture sector, which consumes more than 90 percent of Iran’s water resources.

Instead, the Islamic Republic began to build hundreds of dams, most completely unnecessary, and new networks of water transfer pipelines and channels. The revolutionary government’s hope was that these measures would allow it to collect and supply enough water for agricultural and industrial projects. The dam building also benefited construction companies connected to the regime, especially those affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the new dams blocked major rivers from reaching many parts of the country and prevented the replenishment of aquifers. As a result, farmers started drilling deeper wells to reach the natural water tables that were gradually sinking.

In the meantime, the regime, striving to gain self-sufficiency in its conflict with the West, encouraged farmers to plant more wheat and other grains without paying attention to the water intensity of cereals and the increasingly dire state of the aquifers. This led to farmers digging tens of thousands of wells, many illegally without any supervision or accountability. In the 40 years since the revolution, the number of wells in Iran has climbed from 60,000 to almost 800,000. The deputy agriculture minister announced in 2018 that 430,000 of these wells were illegal and that farmers were pumping an excessive amount of water from many legal wells. The water tables are now on the verge of complete depletion.

The Islamic regime has built more than 600 dams, promising sufficient water to farmers all around the country. Instead, such infrastructure has prevented water from reaching lakes, wetlands, and aquifers. Aquifers that haven’t been recharged are starting to collapse and subside permanently (an effect that has been evident in areas of the United States such as Fresno, California).

The regime’s destruction of Iran’s environment and water resources are well demonstrated by the dying Zayandeh River. In Persian, Zayandeh means life-giver. The river, which springs from the Zagros Mountains in the west and ends in the Gavkhooni wetland in central Iran, was responsible for the earliest civilizations in central Iran and was the reason for the centuries of the prosperity of the magnificent city of Isfahan, known in Persian as “half of the world.”

Today, the ongoing death of the river is devastating the lives of thousands of farmers. It has led to mass demonstrations against the regime not just in Isfahan but in smaller cities such as Varzaneh—justifiably so. During the last three decades, the Zagros Mountains have experienced less snowfall due to a change of precipitation patterns, leading to the shrinking of the Zayandeh. But the Iranian government, instead of finding sustainable solutions to the crisis, has instead intensified and sped up the river’s destruction through neglect and corruption.

Image credit: Iranians walk near the "Si-o-Se Pol" bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan on April 11, 2018. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

February 25, 2019

  • Islamic Republic's corruption

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington

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Nowruz, a Time of Hope and Revival for Struggling Iranians

Nowruz (New Day), the Spring Equinox celebrated in Iran and across the Middle East.

Alireza Nader

Nowruz (New Day), the Spring Equinox celebrated in Iran and across the Middle East as the new year, is considered a time of renewal and revival in Iranian culture. Nowruz is believed by many historians to be older than Iran itself. Rooted in Zoroastrian tradition, Nowruz is now a secular celebration that’s inclusive of Iranians of all religions. One can celebrate Nowruz and be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or an atheist. It’s also a holiday that the ruling Islamic Republic dislikes but begrudgingly tolerates, as it evokes Iran’s pre-Islamic and imperial past. This year Nowruz will be a very difficult time for Iranians as they face economic collapse, environmental devastation, water shortages. But the importance of Norouz as a time of renewal, hope, and tolerance will endure.

Nowruz evokes a more tolerant time for many Iranians, many of whom will proudly tell you that Cyrus the Great, the founder of Iran and the Persian Empire, was the first ruler of the ancient world to proclaim a written record of human rights and religious toleration. By the measure of his time, Cyrus was a tolerant man, as he allowed conquered peoples under his rule to practice their own religion and traditions.

The Islamic Republic, by contrast, is known for its systematic abuse of human rights in Iran. Before the 1979 revolution, religious minorities like Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians lived side by side with Muslims at peace. While Iran was not a liberal democracy, religious minorities lived a life of largely peace and prosperity. Under the Islamic Republic, religious minorities such as the Bahai and Sufis are severely repressed. More than ninety percent of Iranian Jews have left their homeland under threat in the past forty years, mostly to reside in Israel and America. While traditional Christian communities such as the Armenians are somewhat tolerated, converts to Christianity are harassed, jailed, tortured, and encouraged to leave the country. Yet Christianity, mostly underground, is reported to be the fastest growing religion in Iran.

Iranians are not silent in the face of these challenges. Since December 2017, people from all walks of life have engaged in peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience across Iran. The women’s freedom movement is one of the most noteworthy, but teachers, truck drivers, farmers, and environmentalists have also demonstrated the ability to mobilize.

Nowruz, a time to celebrate renewal, will be a time of water shortages, blackouts, food rationing, lines to buy meat, and fears for the future. But Iranians have an instinctive drive to endure even the worst of times. For the past four decades, they have survived revolution, war, sanctions, terror, and isolation. But many still believe that a new and better Iran can also be at hand.

During this Nowruz, Iranian-Americans and their American friends should think of the struggles of their homeland while they celebrate the spring. As Iranians peacefully fight for a better future, Americans of all political and religious persuasions should stand by their side and publicly express support for Iranian pro-democracy forces. Broader coverage of Iranians’ struggle in the American media is vital, as are statements and actions demonstrating support from policy-makers on the Hill and the executive branch.

Iranians, like people anywhere, desire freedom and liberty. Nowruz this year will be a time of immense difficulty, but a time of hope and revival as well.

February 20, 2019

  • Iran Revival
  • Nowruz

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington

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Reform Is Dead in Iran. Here’s How the U.S. Can Help.

Iranians are fed up with broken promises. But they need external support—even from Donald Trump.

Iranians are fed up with broken promises. But they need external support—even from Donald Trump.

Alireza Nader

In a speech on Sunday titled “Supporting Iranian Voices,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience of Iranian-Americans that “the Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do,” and announced an invigorated “diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction.”

Pompeo’s speech has been the talk of the Iranian-American community, which may share the Trump administration’s revulsion for the brutal and decrepit Iranian regime, but is deeply divided over the real aims of the secretary of state’s new campaign.

While some Iranian-Americans and Iran pundits have characterized his speech as being part of a policy of “regime change,” many others view it as a good opportunity to support Iranians who are fighting for democracy in their country. But to judge the efficacy of U.S. policy, it’s important to know what’s happening within Iran and not just the Beltway. In reality, the U.S. has little do with events inside Iran—it’s brave Iranians who have engaged in nationwide protests and acts of civil disobedience against the Islamic Republic since December 2017. However, this doesn’t mean that Washington should be a bystander. Iranians need U.S. support more than ever—even if it’s coming from Donald Trump.

Iranians hoped for the reformation or evolution of the Islamic Republic for more than two decades. And many scholars and advocates in the West have vigorously defended the reformist agenda as the only solution for Iran’s long-suffering people. But the current Iranian uprising demonstrates the utter failure and rejection of the reformist agenda. Tens of thousands of Iranian demonstrators have risked life and limb to denounce not only the “hardliners” of the Iranian regime but the “moderates” or reformists as well. They have chanted not only “death to Khamenei,” but “moderates, hardliners, the game is over.” Some protesters have also called for the death of Iran’s supposedly “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani.

After years of being promised reforms, Iranians now face a ravaged country on the verge of economic and environmental collapse. The reformists have not only failed to achieve any of their purported reforms, but have been actively complicit in the preservation of the Islamic Republic, one of the most repressive, corrupt, and anti-American regimes in the world. Iranians realize more than ever that the Islamic Republic, an ideologically totalitarian and politically absolutist system, cannot be reformed. Only a completely new political system defined by secularism and democracy can save their country from following the path of the many failed states that litter the Middle East’s increasingly bleak landscape.

Many Western pundits and analysts blame Iranian “hardliners” for Iran’s precipitous decline since the 1979 revolution. But reformist leaders such as former President Mohammad Khatami share a great deal of responsibility for Iran’s misery. Elected in 1997 and again in 2001, Khatami promised to “democratize” the Islamic Republic by creating greater space for political debate, easing media restrictions and courting foreign investments in the economy by “moderating” Iran’s policies on the regional and global stage. Iranians, having emerged from a tumultuous revolution and bloody eight year long war with Iraq, displayed enthusiastic support and hope for the relatively charming mid-ranking cleric.

In the early years, Khatami succeeded in creating a modest degree of social and economic freedom for Iranians. But he was and never has been willing to push the boundaries of the Islamic Republic he so cherishes. Faced with a conservative backlash, including murder of dissidents, Khatami chose to remain passive in the face of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s accumulation of power. Khatami also did little to challenge the Revolutionary Guards’ growing economic and political might, allowing Iran’s premier security force to become a major decision-maker in its own right. Disappointing his supporters, Khatami sided with the regime in its violent crackdown of the 1999 student protests. And while Khatami may have challenged his successor’s widely perceived fraudulent election in 2009, his opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was due less to a desire for democracy rather than the need to protect his own faction’s grip on power and share of the country’s wealth.

Rouhani, as the heir to Khatami’s line of “moderation,” has managed to drive the fatal stake through reformism’s dying heart. Widely touted as a “moderate” in the West, Rouhani promised Iranians the moon by vowing to resolve the nuclear crisis. His signature achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal, was celebrated both in Tehran and Washington as not only preventing a potential military conflict, but also creating a more open and just society with greater economic opportunities for all Iranians. The reality was completely the opposite. It is true that remaining U.S. sanctions after the Iran nuclear deal prevented Iran from reaping the full benefits of the JCPOA. But the regime also received tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets that it used not to benefit regular Iranians, but to spend on foreign military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and dozens of unaccountable religious foundations were the major beneficiaries of the JCPOA rather than the struggling and destitute people of Iran. It is no surprise that the December uprising started after the Rouhani administration’s budget was publicized; it showed not a boost in domestic spending benefiting Iranians, but massive increases in funding for the Revolutionary Guards and foundations. In return, the regime’s spending on critical issues such as water shortages and air pollution were decreased. The result has been an explosion of hunger and thirst as millions of Iranians struggle to feed and clothe their families.

It’s easy to blame “hardliners” like Khamenei for Iran’s ills. But Khatami, Rouhani and the reformist movement deserve as much if not greater blame. They have promised reforms for more than 20 years without demonstrating any achievements; that’s damning enough. But their greatest crime has been to extend the life of the Islamic Republic at the expense of the Iranian people. And in reality, the top reformists have benefited from Iran’s ruling kleptocracy as much as Khamenei and the Guards. Many have become enormously wealthy and sent their children to live and study in the U.S., Europe and Canada while the vast majority of Iranians live under the crushing weight of repression, international isolation, sanctions brought about by the regime’s policies and Iran’s environmental destruction.

Khatami and Rouhani’s fraudulent presidencies show that the time for reforming the Islamic Republic is over. Only a secular, democratic and representative state that cares for its own people will save Iran from the abyss. America’s role as the world’s leading democracy makes it a natural partner for Iranians struggling against oppression. For both the Iranian people and U.S. policymakers, the reformist game that has sustained a bloodthirsty regime is finally over.

August 6, 2018

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Supporting Iranian Voices
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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Iranian mullahs’ lock on power is now shakier than ever

A year ago, Iranians poured into their streets to denounce ­Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and call for an end to his brutal regime.

Protests in Iran's southwestern city of Ahvaz | AFP/Getty Images

Alireza Nader

A year ago, Iranians poured into their streets to denounce ­Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and call for an end to his brutal ­regime. Protests have continued ­unabated since, though these are smaller in number and less visible to foreign ­media.

The Tehran regime’s grip on power is no firmer now than it was then. Still entrenched and viciously clinging to life, the Islamic Republic is nevertheless more vulnerable than it has ever been since the 1979 revolution.

Today, unpaid factory workers, teachers, farmers and truck drivers are some of the most organized and motivated anti-regime forces. The southwestern city of Ahvaz experienced anti-regime labor protests last month. Truck drivers were also on nationwide strikes for much of 2018, blocking major roadways and access to gas stations over low pay and rising tolls.

Farmers in Isfahan, in central Iran, have turned their backs against regime clerics during Friday prayers and chanted: “Our back to the enemy, our faces to our nation.” Another favorite slogan: “They say our enemy is America, when the real enemy is right here” — meaning the mullahs. Meanwhile, many Iranian women have been shedding the compulsory hijab in public, a gesture that was unthinkable even two years ago.

The sources of popular anger vary, from water shortages to economic collapse to frustration with social restrictions. Most important, recent years disabused Iranians of the illusion of “reform” peddled by so-called moderates like President Hassan Rouhani. The people have learned that such rhetoric only masks the country’s environmental, economic and social devastation ­under the mullahs.

The Islamic Republic’s demise has been predicted many times, of course. Iran’s theocracy has survived tough challenges before, from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s to the massive Green uprising that followed 2009’s fraudulent presidential “election.” But today the ­regime confronts a crisis without precedent, owing to the sheer breadth of social discontent.

Even insiders such as former President Mahmoud ­Ahmadinejad believe that the ­Islamic Republic may soon face a complete revolution.

Senior cleric Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli recently expressed fears of a popular revolt that “will push us” — that is, the clergy — “into the sea.” Faezeh Hashemi, the “moderate” daughter of one of the regime’s founders, has described the ­Islamic Republic as a “failed” theocratic system.

Still, the Islamic Republic enjoys a core base of support among the population, sustained with ideological indoctrination and financial and political ­patronage.

Moreover, Khamenei, the supreme leader, still retains control over the fearsome security apparatus, including the Revolutionary Guards and the basij paramilitary forces. The people are outgunned, and while it is ultimately up to them to bring fundamental change to Iran, Washington has an important role to play.

Instead of seeking to tweak the Islamic Republic’s behavior, the US should strongly and unequivocally support the Iranian people’s right to self-determination. President Trump shouldn’t engage the regime diplomatically, or lift sanctions, until the mullahs permit peaceful demonstrations and ­respect the right to organize political parties that favor a free, secular and democratic Iran.

The US should also focus on combatting the regime’s propaganda machine by creating new Persian-language media that ­bypass the aging and ineffective Voice of America and Radio Farda, US-taxpayer-funded outlets that too often broadcast the regime’s worldview to Iran.

Private TV broadcasts, such as the enormously popular Manoto TV based in London, can be a powerful tool in strengthening US interests in Iran.

Likewise, America should provide moral and material assistance to domestic forces combatting the regime. Washington should pursue some of the same policies that proved successful in defeating Communism during the Cold War, such as clandestine aid to Solidarity in Poland.

The Islamic Republic will never change for the better. The Iranian people are awake to this reality. Whatever the wisdom of Trump’s recent Syria pullout, America and its interests in the region will never be safe until Khamenei’s ­regime is gone. Washington’s best allies are the Iranians bravely fighting injustice every day.

January 1, 2019

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Ali Kamenei
  • Iranian Opposition

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington

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Why the Iranian Uprising Won’t Die

Even if these protests are snuffed out, a new line has been crossed. There’s no going back.

Even if these protests are snuffed out, a new line has been crossed. There’s no going back.

Alireza Nader

Modern Iran has faced many uprisings, insurgencies and revolutions, from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution to the 1979 revolution to the 2009 Green Uprising. So the mass protests against the Islamic Republic that have taken place over the past few days are not unprecedented. But Iran has not witnessed such a storm since 2009, and possibly 1979. The Iran uprising of 2017 is the biggest challenge Iran’s theocracy has ever faced.

The raw anger, violence against security forces and government offices, and dispersed nature of the revolt make it much different from the 2009 Green Uprising. Much of the protests so far have taken place outside of Tehran, in Iran’s thousands of smaller towns and cities. The ire directed against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been breathtaking. Iranians have expressed anger not only toward Khamenei, but the entire political and religious establishment. The uprising has also revealed a critical chink in the Iranian regime’s armor: Although it may appear powerful in the Middle East, Iranians themselves resent its economic, social, religious and foreign policies. This could provide Washington with a rare opportunity to increase its leverage against Tehran in light of Iran’s purported regional successes.

The 2017 uprising started in the mostly conservative city of Mashhad; rumors in Iran claim that it was started by conservatives opposed to President Hassan Rouhani’s government. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was even accused by the Revolutionary Guards of having instigated the Mashhad protests. Regardless, the uprising quickly spread all over Iran from Mashhad to the holy city of Qom and Isfahan, among others. But remarkably, the worst violence took place in many smaller cities ranging in population from 50,000 to 200,000. These included Izeh, Dezful, Shahinshahr, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, and so on; the number of towns and cities are too many to list. And these places experienced not only protests, but also popular attacks against law enforcement forces, government offices, paramilitary Basij facilities, banks and religious foundations associated with the regime. All over Iran, insurgents shouted against Khamenei and tore down his images, reminding many of the days of the 1979 revolution when statues of the shah were toppled nationwide.

The uprising also spread to Tehran, the capital and the hub of Iran’s economy and culture, but protests there were relatively subdued. Reports indicate that Tehran’s better-off people (in the northern part of the city anyhow) did not share the insurgents’ grievances. But this is misleading: The regime expected future troubles in Tehran and other large cities and concentrated its forces and intelligence resources away from the smaller cities. That’s partly why it was caught off guard.

Moreover, the people of Tehran, while struggling, have received some residual economic benefits from the Iran nuclear agreement, especially those having connections and contracts with the government. The rest of Iran, however, has faced greater impoverishment under the Rouhani presidency, with some of the insurgent cities facing as much as 40-60 percent unemployment rates. His budget, publicized or leaked right before the uprising, cut subsidies to the poor while increasing funding for the Revolutionary Guards and religious foundations viewed by many Iranians as corrupt, state-supported conglomerates. And Iranians were enraged as they struggled to feed their children while their government spent billions on its foreign adventures in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. While Iran was made poor, the regime became richer. While Iranians suffered, the regime’s allies became powerful and prosperous.

The rage among Iranians should come as no surprise. It is due to decades of the regime’s mismanagement, avarice and repression. The Islamic Republic’s water policies, documented by activists such as Nikahang Kowsar, have led to the destruction of entire riverbeds and lakes. Iranian cities suffer from some of the worst pollution on Earth, not just in smog-clogged Tehran, but above all in the Arab-speaking province of Khuzestan, which experienced perhaps the greatest degree of insurrection. Iranians believe their government does not care for them: The recent earthquake in Kermanshah, which killed hundreds and left thousands homeless, was mostly ignored by the government in Tehran. It is no surprise that the people of Kermanshah, who are mostly members of the Kurdish minority, took to the streets to voice their dissent.

Finally, Iran’s nuclear program has been the height of the regime’s folly. It has not produced any benefits for the population whatsoever, but has led to U.S. and international sanctions that further gutted the economy. Rouhani’s nuclear agreement was supposed to be his key to solving Iran’s problems, but no end is in sight for Iran’s millions of disenfranchised and dispossessed citizens who had put great hope in the agreement

It is no surprise, then, that the uprising vented its anger at Iran’s entire political establishment, including Rouhani and the reformists who have supported him.

Ultimately, only Iranians can change Iran. But the Trump administration could increase U.S. leverage by rescinding the travel ban against Iranians, by providing satellite internet to Iran’s struggling activists, and by increasing support and funding for human rights efforts. It would be wise for Washington to keep the Iran nuclear agreement while it pressures the Islamic Republic on other fronts. After all, the source of Washington’s problem is not just the nuclear program, but the regime that wields it. And ultimately, the key to finding a permanent solution to the nuclear program is fundamental change in Iran, which may be beginning.

There has been speculation that the uprising will die out or be crushed by the regime. However, a key barrier has been broken: Iranians are no longer contained by the wall of fear created by the Islamic Republic. Not only has Iran’s theocracy lost its legitimacy, but it has lost its ability to control the public through the instruments of violence. Unlike in past protests, countless Iranians have demonstrated that they will no longer participate in the political game of “reformist vs. conservative” (better known as “moderates vs. conservatives” in the West). For them, no one from the establishment, including the so-called reformists, can make their lives better. For them, the entire system has to fall for a new Iran to be reborn.

A key test will be the response of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij. Many of their commanders may be loyal to Khamenei, but the rank and file are conscripts who face the same daily struggles as their brethren. Thus, it is no surprise that some Basijis are reported to have burned their membership cards in support of the uprising.

The current revolt may not lead to the immediate collapse of the regime, but we are witnessing the death throes of the Islamic Republic. Even if the uprising ends today, it is but one step in a long struggle to achieve a more representative, democratic and popular government. Khamenei and Rouhani may blame foreign enemies for the rebellion, but their enemies are the hungry and oppressed people of Iran. They are awake. And they are legion.

January 7, 2018

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Islamic Republic
  • Ali Khamenei
  • Rouhani
  • Pollution on Earth

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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Washington Can Roll Back Iran's Influence. Here's How.

Washington Can Roll Back Iran’s Influence. Here’s How.

Alireza Nader

The U.S. campaign against the Soviet Union during the latter years of the Cold War holds some important lessons for Washington’s current policy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Much like the Soviet Union was, the Iranian regime is beset with a host of internal and external challenges. Iran’s theocracy lacks legitimacy, popularity, and even the ability to govern the country effectively. Iran’s environmental devastation, water shortages, and near economic collapse point to the regime’s grave failings. And while Iran appears ascendant in the region, it has achieved its supremacy in Syria and Iraq at a grave expense to its own people.

Popular dissatisfaction with the regime’s costly involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza was one of the chief causes of the December 2017 Iranian uprising against the regime. The Islamic Republic’s continued aggression in the region puts its own existence at greater risk. This gives the U.S. tremendous leverage to increase economic pressure against Tehran as it counters the regime’s regional influence. But to do so, Washington must revise its policies in key places such as Syria and Iraq so it can contain and roll back Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s most vulnerable foreign adventure. The Assad regime appears on the cusp of victory with Iran’s position in the Levant seemingly strong and secure. Tens of thousands of Iranian trained troops roam Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon at will, part of the vast Iranian military structure that doesn’t recognize international borders. Yet Iran’s victory in Syria may prove pyrrhic in the long term. In addition to suffering thousands of casualties, Iran has spent billions protecting the Syrian regime. And it needs to spend billions more in order to rebuild Assad-controlled parts of Syria and maintain its dominant role in the country. Yet Tehran must contend with a collapsing economy at home, Russian supremacy in Syria and Moscow’s potential betrayal of Iranian interests, and Israeli attacks against Iranian military installations. The U.S. should be commended for maintaining its military presence in Syria in order to counter Iran, but it could do a lot more to increase the pressure on Tehran and compel it to pull its troops out of the Levant.

First, the U.S. should maintain support for some anti-Iranian Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime even if Assad’s defeat is not imminent; Iran may have largely “won” the conflict in Syria, but it should be denied stability in areas occupied by its allies and proxies. The U.S. should divert trade and investment from Assad-held areas, a policy it has already set in motion; but for its policy to be more effective, Washington should ensure that critical border areas such as Deraa remain under control of the opposition to the Assad regime. Moreover, the U.S. should prevent normalization of ties between Damascus and regional and foreign powers. Finally, Washington should figure out how to encourage defections from Iranian-commanded Shi’a Afghan, Pakistani, and Arab forces numbering thousands in Syria. Many of these fighters are in Syria not because of religion or ideology, but due to financial hardship and desperation. Alternative sources of revenue may convince many to abandon Iran’s mission and return to their home countries.

Iraq presents another important opportunity for the U.S. to roll back Iranian influence. Baghdad is often presented as a pliant junior partner to Tehran, and while Iran does hold many levers of influence, its ability to manipulate its neighbor is not ironclad. Iran’s main source of leverage is its close ties to Shiite religious parties that hold sway in Baghdad. Washington may think that it has no choice but to share power with Tehran in Iraq given that the majority of Iraqis are Shiite. But the Iraqi Shiites are not monolithic in their views of Iranian influence; powerful political figures such as Muqtada al Sadr see Iran with suspicion and are willing to work with other domestic and foreign actors to offset Iranian power. Washington’s ability to choke off Iran’s banking ties with Iraq and disrupt illicit economic activities across the border can be used to demonstrate a key choice for pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite groups. Iraqi groups wedded to the Islamic Republic’s ideology and money may be harder to break off, but as the September 2017 anti-Iranian riots demonstrated, there is enough resentment of Iran which can be exploited by sophisticated American information operations.

Iranian power in the Middle East, once ascendant, is under tremendous pressure and is vulnerable to U.S. pressure. The Iranian population will no longer passively tolerate the Islamic Republic’s export of the revolution and emptying of Iranian pockets for the regime’s narrow interests. And although Iran has built an impressive regional military network, the upkeep of its proxy armies will prove unsustainable in the face of renewed U.S. sanctions on November 5. The regime must either feed its population or its insatiable appetite for power abroad; it no longer has the resources to do both. Hence a U.S. pressure campaign that emphasizes information operations and defections while pushing against Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria may pay great dividends for American policy-makers.

October 31, 2018

  • Iranian Uprising
  • Islamic Republic
  • Rouhani

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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Iran Protest Movement Births a New Group, Iran Revival

The regime’s vulnerability has not only motivated existing opposition groups, but has sparked the creation of new organizations led by younger Iranians.

Alireza Nader

Iran has faced widespread demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience for more than one year. Even members of the elite, including the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and daughter of Hashemi Rafsanjani, have said that the collapse of the regime is an increasing possibility. The regime’s vulnerability has not only motivated existing opposition groups, but has sparked the creation of new organizations led by younger Iranians.

One such group is Iran Revival, or farashgard. (In Zoroastrianism, Iran’s ancient pre-Islamic religion, farashgard is the period of the world’s rebirth after the defeat of Ahriman, the God of Darkness.) A loosely organized network of political activists spread across the US, Canada, Europe and Iran, the group, which describes itself as a “political action network,” seeks the overthrow of the Islamic Republic through a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience mimicking past successful revolutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In particular, Iran Revival has called for “Million Man” demonstrations and gatherings across Iranian cities to overwhelm the security forces and shut down the regime.

Iran Revival represents a new phenomenon in Iranian politics. Disillusioned by the siren song of “reformism,” many young Iranians have found inspiration in forces antithetical to the Islamic Republic and outside its narrow circle of permitted political factions. Secular, pluralist, and nationalist, Iran Revival has rallied around Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah and heir apparent to the Pahlavi throne. From his exile in America, Pahlavi has long urged Iranians to overthrow the regime through peaceful protests and civil disobedience. Pahlavi has also stated that Iran’s post-Islamic Republic political system must be established through a popular referendum monitored by international observers.

But it would be wrong to call Iran Revival a strictly monarchist group. Many of its supporters are either disillusioned reformists or supporters of a republic, although many members appear to support a constitutional monarchy with the Shah serving as a unifying national figure, a king who reigns but does not rule, much like the British monarch.

One of the most visible and influential members of Iran Revival is Amir Etemadi, a former student activist and political organizer during Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election and ensuing Green Movement. Etemadi paid a heavy price for his activities; he was arrested and jailed for two months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison and sentenced to a further term of two years. Etemadi was lucky to escape Iran and make his way to the US, where he currently serves as the editor in chief of Taghato, an online magazine advocating for a free and democratic Iran.

When asked by this author why he supports Pahlavi, Etemadi said, “I have two reasons for supporting Reza Pahlavi. First, he has persistently fought against the regime and consistently advocated for a secular and democratic Iran for the past forty years. Second, I believe the Pahlavis did a lot to develop Iran. These characteristics and the growing popularity of the Pahlavis among Iranians today make the prince an outstanding partner for us.”

Calling himself a barandaz or overthrower, Etemadi believes that Iran Revival’s appeal to younger Iranians could prove a powerful force for bringing change to Iran. Many if not most of the country’s young population view pre-revolutionary Iran with nostalgia, a view reinforced by Pahlavi’s secular and nationalist credentials and widespread popular dissatisfaction if not revulsion with the current regime’s disastrous economic, social, and environmental policies.

Unable to openly organize within Iran due to severe regime repression, Iran Revival uses social media and foreign Persian language television and radio broadcasts to spread its message far and wide across Iran. Its supporters inside Iran have launched a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience featuring calls for “million man” demonstrations and the slogan “long live the Shah” written on buildings, storefronts and street signs all over the country.

It has even picked the color turquoise, long a symbol of ancient Iran and the monarchy, as its representative color. The color has also been adopted by multiple other groups and people within Iran as a symbol of freedom from the Islamic Republic.

It’s impossible to measure the extent of Iran Revival and Pahlavi’s appeal. The regime does not permit fair and free elections and public opinion surveys are completely unreliable in the current climate of terror and repression.

But nostalgia for Pahlavi rule, along with secularism, nationalism and a deep hatred for the Islamic Republic are a powerful social and political force.

The 2017 Iranian uprising and the ensuing nationwide civil disobedience movement led by women, laborers, teachers, students and many other Iranians has also featured dozens of demonstrations calling for the return of the Shah.

“Reza Shah, blessed be your spirit,” has been a popular slogan among the demonstrators, with thousands of sports fans shouting the slogan during soccer matches in Tehran and Esfahan.

Iran Revival is one of many opposition groups scattered among the Iranian diaspora, estimated to number between five and seven million people. But it is one of the few groups almost entirely composed of younger Iranians.

Dena Zairi, a young architectural lecturer, is one of them. She calls London, where she was born, home. But she has an intense attachment to Iran and strongly believes in its potential after the Islamic Republic. Zairi believes that the 2017 uprising is an entirely different phenomenon than past demonstrations, as Iranians have finally given up on the hope that the regime can be reformed. For her, the 2017 uprising was a “call to duty” to save Iran from the Islamic Republic.

She believes that her political inclinations are not as important as “core values that tie monarchists, republic seekers, and others together: a secular, democratic, and representative political system.” Nevertheless, Zairi favors a constitutional monarchy like the British one for Iran, which she sees as a politically “neutral” symbol of unification given the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.

Iran Revival’s goals are in no way easy to achieve. The regime still commands a hardcore group of adherents willing to kill to save it.

But Iran Revival may possess a weapon no longer available to the regime: hope. Iranians long for the rebirth and revival of Iran as a respected and responsible member of the international community. The Islamic Republic, celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, has offered nothing but impoverishment, repression, and misery. For millions of Iranians like Etemadi, Zairi, and Pahlavi, only a total rebirth of Iran can lead to its ultimate salvation.

January 9, 2019

  • Iranian Opposition
  • Iran Revival

Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington

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