Iran’s people care about elections. The so-called democratic fringe doesn’t
Trump’s hard talk has buoyed Iran’s exiled opposition, like the son of the late Shah and the shadowy MEK. But these intemperate voices are not to be trusted
In Donald Trump, opponents of the Iranian establishment bent on regime change have identified a new hope. The US administration, which often talks tough on Iran, has rejuvenated fringe exiled Iranian opposition groups who are irrelevant to modern Iran, yet appeal to gullible Americans.
One such group is led by Reza Pahlavi, who gets attention mainly because he is the son of the late Shah, who was exiled during the revolution in 1979. An “advocate of secularism, human rights, and parliamentary democracy in Iran” as he puts it on his Twitter profile, he reached out to Trump to congratulate him when he won the election, asking him to to engage “with the secular and democratic forces” to defeat “political Islam”.
In his letter, he wrote that the Islamic Republic was promoting a “regressive ideology [that] has spread like a cancer across the globe: from the Middle East to Asia and Africa, and even to Europe and the Americas”. With such overblown rhetoric, Pahlavi sounds like war-mongering Republicans and Israeli hardliners who seek to portray Iran as a bigger threat than Isis.
“Iran’s exiled crown prince wants a revolution,” is how AP began its interview with Pahlavi in April, in which he says “this regime is simply irreformable because the nature of it, its DNA, is such that it cannot”.
“My focus right now is on liberating Iran, and I will find any means that I can, without compromising the national interests and independence, with anyone who is willing to give us a hand, whether it is the US or the Saudis or the Israelis or whomever it is,” he told AP.
In February, Pahlavi told Deutsche Welle that “the Iranian regime from the very beginning has been the root cause of practically every problem we see emanating from that region … The majority of the Iranian people, I would say easily 90% of Iran’s society, is against this regime and wants this regime to go.”
The other group calling for a revolution is the MEK (the People’s Mujahedin of Iran), a shadowy group characterised by many observers – including former members – as cult-like. Earlier this month, Senator John McCain travelled to a conference in Albania to meet with the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi. Speaking in a packed room of MEK supporters, many wearing identical clothes, McCain praised the group and said: “This is an example of the support you are able to get in the United States of America, in the world, to get you to get to freedom.”
Rajavi, who has led the group for almost as long as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been the supreme leader of Iran, said during the conference that “experience has shown that this regime is incapable of changing its behaviour. Thus, regime change in Iran is necessary for peace and stability in the region and for global peace and security.”
Contrary to what you might expect, these two opposition forces do not get along. “It’s pretty much a cult-type structure,” Pahlavi said of MEK in his AP interview. He’s absolutely right.
It’s not long ago that the MEK, described by US thinktank Rand as a “skilled manipulators of public opinion”, was listed by the US and the EU as a terrorist organisation. (When it was delisted by the US in 2012, the US government acknowledged that the organisation had renounced violence and had committed no terrorist acts for more than a decade. It was also delisted by the EU in 2009). The group fought alongside Saddam Hussein against Iran in the eight-year war in the 1980s. That itself should explain its immense unpopularity inside Iran. According to state department and FBI assessments, the MEK was behind the killing of Americans in Iran in the 1970s, though the current MEK leadership disavows those killings. Rajavi has also been barred from entering the UK.
In recent years, the MEK has paid many senior American officials to speak at their events, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Elaine Chao, Trump’s secretary of transportation, who received a $50,000 honorarium to speak at an MEK event.
A strong supporter of the MEK is Saudi Arabia. In July 2016, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, spoke at MEK’s rally in Paris.
In a not-so-subtle reference to Saudi Arabia, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif, said: “In most countries in our region election is a dream … You are talking about a region where people don’t have a constitution for God’s sake.”
Zarif has a point. In a few week’s time, Iranians yet again go to the polls to choose their next government. Groups such as MEK have portrayed Iranian elections as futile. In reality, elections do matter in Iran. While they are far from being fair, given the extent of the vetting of candidates, they are still competitive and are taken seriously by the electorate.
There’s a constant battle in Iran between the elected faction of the establishment, and the unelected faction. In 2013, Iran’s majority pro-reform population threw its weight behind Hassan Rouhani. Iran has indeed drastically changed under the moderate cleric.
Nevertheless, the Iranian people by and large still believe in gradual change, however slow the pace of reform might be. Huge turnouts for elections represent a rejection of the sort of things that Pahlavi and Rajavi have to offer.
In their constant mission to demonise Iran, the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia have heavily relied on groups such as MEK. The fact of the matter is that they remain out of touch with the realities on the ground. Both groups have used human rights as a casus belli, and have simplified the complexities of politics on the ground to suit the foreign audience. So long as reform-minded Iranians are working hard to generate change from within, the intemperate voices of Pahlavi and Rajavi, and their attempts to build political capital in the west, should be dismissed.
By Saeed Kamali Dehghan