Kurdish people in Iran assert that they will not allow another monarchist authoritarian regime to exercise its control over Kurdistan, as they say that there is no difference between the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic. Writes Himdad Mustafa
Most of the opposition figures and groups want a new democratic republic to replace the authoritarian Islamic Republic [of Iran]. However, it recently made the news that a Persian-led group nostalgic for Iranian monarchy is endorsing exiled Reza Pahlavi, son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, to “lead a transition” when the Islamic Republic falls. It was also reported that an online campaign was launched to give power of attorney to Reza Pahlavi, who has not yet apologized for the violation of human rights under the cruel Pahlavi dictatorship (1925-1979).
This move was highly criticized, especially by Iran’s minorities. In fact, many Iranians do not think that Reza Pahlavi, the son of a dictator, is the right person to lead a “transition.” He was only 18 years old when he left Iran in 1979 and lived most of his life in the United States. He therefore has no experience ruling a country. Nevertheless, Iranian monarchists seem to insist that Reza Pahlavi is Iran’s sole representative and that monarchy is the only political system that should replace the Islamic Republic. This attitude makes many people believe that the “transitional period” is just a euphemism for “forever period,” just as Ruhollah Khomeini was supposed to be a “temporary” Supreme leader.
The Essence Of “Iranianness”
Qajar Iran, which preceded the Pahlavi dynasty, was made up of loosely connected mamalek (i.e., kingdoms) with a great degree of political-economic independence from the central government in Tehran. This was evident in the the Qajar Empire’s official name: Mamâlek-e Mahruse-ye Irân (“the Guarded Domains of Iran”). The central power was not able to exercise its authority over the ethnic kingdoms until the 1921 Persian coup d’état by Reza Shah Pahlavi who, in order to homogenize a heterogeneous empire, undertook a forcible Persianization of ethno-nations through ethnocide, linguicide, and violent wars and deportations.
A 1925 editorial published in the pro-Pahlavi Ayandeh (“Future”) newspaper explained that national unity could only be attained “by extending the Persian language throughout the provinces; eliminating regional costumes; destroying local and feudal authorities; and removing the traditional differences between Kurds, Lurs, Qashqayis, Arabs, Turks, Turkomans, and other communities that reside within Iran.” The newspapers also added that “we will continue to live in danger as long as we have no schools to teach Persian and Iranian history to the masses… and no Persian equivalents to replace the many non-Persian names in Iran. Unless we achieve national unity, nothing will remain of Iran.”
Iranian scholar Majid Sharifi stressed that “state elites represented Persian language, history, and culture as the essence of Iranianness.” Hence, “the rich tapestry of other languages and dialects was represented as inferior, incomplete, backward, and alien.”
The Islamic Republic that replaced the Pahlavi dynasty continued the Persianization policy and “internal colonialization.” It sought to create a notion of Iranian identity that fused together both Islamiyat (“Muslimness”) and Iranyat (“Iranianness”). The Islamic Republic could therefore be defined as a “religious Persian monarchy” that promoted Islamiyat, contrary to its predecessor Pahlavi regime which was a “secular Persian monarchy.” While the state ideology of the Pahlavis was centered on “Persianism,” the Islamic Republic has adopted “Shi’ite-Persianism.”
Generally, the Pahlavists and Persian nationalists tend to portray the Islamic Republic as “anti-Iranian” or “anti-Persian,” portraying its leaders as “non-Iranian” or “non-Persian.” Rumors were even spread alleging that Khomeini was Indian. This is done to hide the fact that the Islamic Republic is also pursuing Persianization and to rally “Iranians” around Persian opposition groups and figures, such as Reza Pahlavi.
The ideology of Iranyat is inherently exclusionist, as it demands the assimilation of differences in religion, language, and ethnicity into a unitary notion centered on Persianness. Consequently, ethno-nations are considered a threat that undermines the project to unify the country under one Persian nationalist identity.
For example, in 2019, Reza Pahlavi downplayed the right of minorities to study in their mother tongue, stating that he does not see the “logic” of it, as he does not find it possible for a country’s national education system to be taught in different languages other than in the official Persian language. However, as it has been pointed out by several democratic figures, the education and teaching of the mother tongue along with an official and administrative language can be embedded in the structure and education system of the country as happens already in many Western countries.
Neither The Shah Nor The Mullahs
In early January 2023, for the first time, Reza Pahlavi called on Iranians to give him the power of attorney to represent Iranians. Pro-Pahlavi Persian activists in the West have launched massive online campaigns and hashtags to present Reza Pahlavi as the favored representative of all Iranians from all walks of life.
Between February 17-27, 2022, The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) carried out a survey, titled “Iranians’ Attitudes toward Political Systems.” As reported on the GAMAAN website, the final sample used in the report consisted of 16,850 Iranians living inside Iran, of whom 74.2% speak Persian at home (which may imply that they are ethnically Persian). When asked about their preferred type of government, 34% chose a “secular republic,” 22% the “Islamic republic,” 19% a “constitutional monarchy,” 3% an “absolute monarchy,” and over 21% declared that they are “not sufficiently informed to answer this question.”
However, 53% of those who chose “absolute monarchy” believe that the function of the head of state is not for life, and only 27% of the proponents of “constitutional monarchy” are in favor of “giving life tenure to the head of state.” Finally, 95% of those who chose a “secular republic” are “against life tenure” for the head of state.
Iranian scholar Aidin Torkameh wrote: “If we turn our attention from the mainstream media and focus on what is happening on the ground it appears that the actual presence of the Pahlavists is not significant.” “Their huge propaganda machine has failed to fully reach the masses, and many segments of the masses are actively rejecting it. It is worth noting that even this existing level of support for the old Pahlavi regime should not be taken as the result of an entirely organic process. Most of the pro-Pahlavi protesters are passive defenders of the Pahlavis because alternative views have been eliminated. Their worldview has been largely shaped by, and is limited to, the nation-state-centric (Iranist/Farsist) viewpoint that has developed over the past century,” Torkameh said, adding that “in an open political environment where progressive groups can operate freely, Pahlavi’s supporters are likely to become even less influential.”
This is also reflected in anti-regime protests, as one of the main slogans is “Marg Ba Setamgar, Che Shah Bashe Che Rahbar [Death to the Dictator, Be it Shah or Ayatollah].” This slogan refers to a 120-year-old historical struggle of all the multi-national Iranian groups for freedom against dictatorial regimes that were brought about after the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution.
It is worth noting that key figures of the Iranian opposition – such as the president and spokesman of The Association of Victims’ Families of Flight PS752, Hamed Esmaeilion, actress Nazanin Boniadi, and activist Masih Alinejad, as well as political figures and other groups that represent Iran’s minorities – have not endorsed Reza Shah.
London-based broadcaster Manoto TV (known for its “distinctive pro-Pahlavi bent”) recently claimed that Seyyed Nasreddin Heydari, a leader of the Yarsani Kurdish community, has endorsed Reza Pahlavi. However, this news was later refuted, as the source of the endorsement came from a fake Twitter account. Kurdish journalist Kaveh Kermashani commented: “A media that, despite the existence of possibilities, without the least knowledge and research, turns the writing of a fake account into the desired news of its advertising machine, is not only unprofessional but also unethical.”
Labor rights activist group Haft-Tappeh Factory Workers from Khuzistan described the pro-monarchist coalition as a “one-sided, anti-majority, power-seeking group,” and added: “They are irrelevant to our real struggle. The practical leaders of our struggle are ourselves and our imprisoned friends.”
Iran’s Minorities Reject The Monarchy And Its Ideology
The majority of Iranian minoritized ethno-nations have remained very much attached to their ethnic identity, prioritizing their ethnonational identities over Persian-centered “Iranianness.”
Since 1905, the incompatibility of the minority-majority positions has led to heightened tensions that have regularly exploded in deadly and protracted ethnic conflicts. In recent years, Iran has witnessed the rise of ethnonational sentiment that has become a greater challenge for the Islamic Republic and the “pan-Iranists” in the diaspora, as many members of ethnic minority groups such as the Kurds, Balochs, and Ahwazi Arabs increasingly mobilize and push for greater cultural and political rights.
As opposition groups in the diaspora are trying to form alliances to encounter the Iranian regime, suppressed minorities have found themselves marginalized once again as none of the Persian-led opposition groups have publicly addressed minorities’ demands.
Kurdish people in Iran assert that they will not allow another monarchist authoritarian regime to exercise its control over Kurdistan, as they say that there is no difference between the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic.
On Twitter, a Kurdish activist, known by the name of Fariba, wrote: “It is time for Kurdish political parties to form a united coalition with Lurs, [Azeri] Turks, Baloch, Gilakis, Turkmen, Arab activists, parties and the leftist forces [i.e., non-monarchist forces] and with all [the forces] that are not represent by Reza Pahlavi.” The user then called on the president and spokesman of The Association of Victims’ Families of Flight PS752, Hamed Esmaeilion, who has expressed his support for Kurdistan, to lead this coalition, saying: “You can be the center of gravity of this coalition, you are both sympathetic and known and reliable among all these peoples, you are a symbol of sympathy and unity for overthrowing the Islamic Republic.”
Ahwazi activist Wael Saffah further wrote: “First of all, the majority of people in Iran [belong to] non-Persian nations, [and] reject centralism totally. Second, none [of Iran’s non-Persian nations] accept any more dictator[ial] systems like [the] monarchy. The problem is [that] the Pahlavi family continues living in their dreams supported by fake media.” In response to the online campaign to give power of attorney to Reza Pahlavi, Saffah wrote: “The supporters of the monarchy and the centrists once again voted to confiscate the rights of the marginalized nations and went along with tyranny in order to create a future for themselves by concentrating our power and accumulating our looted wealth in the center. This hypocrisy puts the future of the country on a dangerous path.”
Washington-based Ahwazi journalist and activist Rahim Hamid tweeted: “The ethnic non-Persian political and human rights groups are completely marginalized, their voices are censored, and even they are subjected to online bullying and threats and even physical assaults by Shah Pahlavi supporters when attending rallies in London and Washington D.C.” He then added: “The voices and true demands of the current protests in Iran are censored and misrepresented on a large scale by Persian media and Shah Pahlavi supporters. The major demands are the decentralization of Iran’s future rule and the end of the ethnic oppression of non-Persian nations… The current protests’ demands in Iran are not merely on individual civil liberties but the major issue is the cause of marginalized peoples in Kurdistan, Ahwaz, Balochistan, and South Azerbaijan [that] endure brutal ethnic oppression and fight for their national ethnic rights.”
Hamid also stressed: “Fanatic fans of the son of the former despotic Shah Pahlavi… use social media in spontaneous clicktivism, prompting the restoration of Shah’s dark times to Iran. This group expresses their nostalgia towards the Persian nationalist authoritarian rule. They have a clicktivist cyber army that launches online petitions and hashtags in supporting the son of the former dictator Shah. Their campaigns are backed by Persians TV channels. This group of Persian nationalists is rejecting the national and ethnic rights of Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Balochis, and Azerbaijani Turks.”
On January 20, 2023, during the Friday protests against the Islamic Republic, Balochi protesters showed also their disdain for Reza Pahlavi, showing posters, stating: “Reza Pahlavi is not our representative. Understand we have our own parties,” “Iran is a country of 70 nations. A coalition of parties. One person [referring to Reza Pahlavi] is not an attorney for the whole country. Any coalition of any kind, if it is going to happen, must be formed with all parties,” and “No to Mullah and No to the Shah; No to Pahlavi and No to Rajavi [leader of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK)]; IRGC Terrorists; Freedom.”
Pro-Monarchists Attack Hamed Esmaeilion On Social Media
Hamed Esmaeilion, who was born in the Kurdish city of Kermanshah, is an Iranian-Canadian social activist, author, and dentist. On January 8, 2020, Esmaeilion’s wife, Parisa, and their only child, nine-year-old Reera, were killed when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 with two surface-to-air missiles, shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport. The missiles killed all 176 passengers and crew aboard.
Esmaeilion and a group of families of victims of Flight PS752 established The Association of Victims’ Families of Flight PS752. “The missions of our Association are to unite the grieving families, keep the memories of the passengers alive, and most importantly seek justice. We are determined to uncover the truth and find out why a commercial flight was shot down by IRGC’s missiles. We will staunchly seek justice until the culprits, perpetrators and commanders of this atrocious crime are identified and brought to justice before an impartial and independent court,” wrote the association, headed by Esmaeilion.
In December 2022, in an article in the Washington Post, Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian described Esmaeilion as “a moral leader” for Iranian protesters in the diaspora: “Now Esmaeilion has become a leading voice outside Iran in the anti-regime movement — an essential bridge between Iranians in the diaspora who want to promote a freer future for their homeland and the millions inside Iran who live under an abusive system that has long operated with impunity.”
It is actually worth mentioning that Esmaeilion was the main figure behind the organization of the October rally in Berlin against the Islamic Republic that gathered 80,000 participants, which was “the largest gathering in history of Iranians” opposing the Islamic Republic. Addressing the Berlin rally, Esmaeilion said: “We have a dream that will be realized with the fall of Khamenei’s empire of fear and crime. In this dream, the wind will blow through women’s hair, and no one will attack schoolgirls.”
However, since Esmaeilion did not state that he gives the power of attorney to Reza Pahlavi (as football legend Ali Karimi did), many pro-monarchists have tried to tear his image. Accusations leveled against him have included among others being “a lover of the IRGC,” despite the fact that he has repeatedly condemned the Iranian agency and called on Western governments to designate it as a terrorist organization in its entirety.
After writing a tweet in Kurdish to condolence the father of Hooman Abdullahi from Kermanshah, who was killed by the regime, Esmaeilion was accused by many pro-monarchists of “promoting separatism,” and of “causing sedition” among Iranians.
An Iranian woman tweeting under the name of @JinaFreeIran wrote: “Dr. Esmaeilion… is one of the most respected and courageous figures of this revolution… He has many supporters inside and outside Iran, including Kurds who started this revolution. We, who support him, are constantly being attacked by Pahlavi fans on tweeter.” She then added: “[The 2022] Iranian revolution is to bring peace and democracy to Iran, but Pahlavi’s fans have already shown that all they care [about] is to push their agenda…”
An Iranian Bahai user, Syed Jamal Shervin Ashrafi, also stated: “It seems that Prince Reza Pahlavi’s fans are looking at Hamed Esmaeilion as [his] a competitor… for this reason they are trying to destroy his image… This kind of behavior shows the true face of [the] Prince’s fans.”
In a 2017 interview with the Israeli channel i24, Reza Pahlavi said: “The most important component of this [regime] change would be the tacit cooperation of the existing military and paramilitary forces [i.e. the Basij] in this scenario of change… Today, the Iranian people…demand some kind of intervention from the international community rushing to their support… As you can realize, it is very difficult to overcome extremely repressive regimes by simply relying on peaceful disobedience, it has to be at some point an element of protection for the people. Now, this element of protection can only come from the military and paramilitary forces. I am not saying that all of them will come in, but a great majority of them will join with the people if they know they can survive beyond this regime… they’ll have a place in the future and in fact become the protective shield should the remainder of the regime try to pursue a policy of genocide like Bashar Assad did against his own citizenry and at the same time not be in no man’s land.”
In a 2019, interview with VOA, Reza Pahlavi also stated: “Are all Sepah [i.e. IRGC] terrorists? No. And this is the reason, I tell Iranians who are in uniform, whether in the military, Sepah, Basij: Dear Sir, the time has come to back away from these forces and join the Iranian people. You guys are not terrorists, you guys are people in Iran, who have stood face-to-face with the Iraqi army and fought in a war. You sacrificed your lives. You have given martyrs, both in the military and in the Sepah. You guys are part of the Iranian people.”
Most recently, in a 2023 interview with the German TV Channel, Deutsche Welle, Reza Pahlavi’s stances were slightly modified. In the past, he used to say that the military, the Basij, and the “current Sepah” would be the ones to preserve peace, once the ruling system would be replaced. Instead in a recent interview, Reza Pahlavi stated that the IRGC was the problem, but not the Iranian military: “As a matter of fact, I think most Iranians know that the Iranian military [has] never been against the people. In fact, from the very beginning, when the IRGC was created it was a mechanism of guarantee [for] the regime’s survival because the regime did not trust the military. The IRGC was not created to support the country The IRGC became a mechanism with a mandate to export an ideological revolution. It is not the military that opposes the people. It is the IRGC that is a major problem.” Reza Pahlavi also tweeted: “Our request is clear: put the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the terrorist list,” using the hashtag #IRGCterrorists.
Online users consider many of Reza Pahlavi’s positions to be contradictory. Some people even coined the sarcastic term “QasemShahrists” to refer to ultranationalists. The term relates to the Sassanian concept of “Eranshahr,” meaning the land and empire of Iran, and to the fact that the ultranationalists/monarchists call themselves Eranshahrists. Claiming that the ultranationalists/monarchists are just another version of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in terms of extremism, Pahlavi’s critics refer to them as QasemShahrists instead of Eranshahrists. However, a QasemShahrists is a term also used to define ultranationalists/monarchists as people with contradicting positions that are ready to use all means to reach power.
Commenting on the attitude of “QasemShahrists” toward minorities, and in particular towards Ahwazis, Iranian activist Ali Ebrahimzadeh wrote: “Now #QasemShahrists say we do not have a minority at all! Someone wrote a while ago that we do not have Arabs in Iran at all! [And that] They are Arabic-speaking Iranians!”
Many Iranian users have also criticized a recent video broadcast by London-based Manoto TV, known for its pro-Pahlavi stances, in which a female reporter stated: “I thank the men, we, myself and many like me, are ready to hold a (democratic) referendum together with Reza Pahlavi and the people of the revolution and of the Revolutionary Guards. And I say to the members of the Revolutionary Guards, we were never dependent on the West and never will be.”
The monarchists form a minority group in Iranian politics. Furthermore, as a Persian-centrist political group, they do not represent the country’s ethno-nations that comprise almost half of Iran’s population. In view of the pro-monarchists’ approach to minorities’ demands, a new Iran ruled by the monarchy is unlikely to undergo major changes in terms of minorities’ rights and democratic rule of law. Hence, it is important to heed lessons from the past to avoid repeating the same mistakes that led to the creation of the current situation in Iran.
It is important for the international community to pursue a “periphery strategy,” i.e., supporting the ethnic minorities found in Iran’s border regions. This will achieve two goals. First, ethnic minorities would finally enjoy the freedom and human rights they have been deprived of since the early 20th century. Second, this would ensure that any new regime in Iran would not be able to continue regional expansionism in the Middle East
Iran’s minorities – which are largely sidelined by the Persian opposition – aim to establish independent ethno-states or at least a decentralized entity, based on democratic confederalism, which could work as a temporary, transitional, intergovernmental project in a post-Ayatollah Iran until the establishment of new ethno-states in the Kurdistan, Balochistan, Khuzestan, and Caspian regions
It is worth noting that pro-monarchy media outlets do not provide a realistic picture of the demands of the “multinational Iran.” Furthermore, many of these media continue to whitewash the crimes committed by the repressive Pahlavi dynasty – among others including the building of the notorious Evin prison in 1972 – and their widespread corruption that led to the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Himdad Mustafa is a Kurdish scholar and expert on Kurdish and Iranian affairs.
This article is republished from The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
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Hi. The people of Iran, Kurds, Turks, and other ethnic groups of Iran declared Prince Reza Pahlavi as their representative in a campaign. The people of Iran created a petition on the website, and within a week half a million people signed it. Also, Iranian Kurds announced that they do not accept Kurdish parties outside of Iran. They said with their hashtags on Twitter and other media that Kurdish parties have nothing in common with Iranian Kurds. How can we Iranian people say that we let it go? In its recent survey, the Gom Institute announced that Reza Pahlavi received 85% of the votes. Now do you want to publish the truth or the lies of an anti-Iranian?