The Desperate Need for Strong Leadership in Iran’s Anti-Government Protests

On the cusp of the Western new year, a group of influential Iranians, including exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi, author/activist Hamed Esmaeilion, footballer Ali Karimi, actress Nazanin Bonyadi and others, released messages of hope for protesters. Their near-identical Tweets promise a “year of victory for the Iranian nation,” achieved through “solidarity,” and importantly, “organization.”

These messages come after waves of protests swept across the country. Sparked by the death of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, they have persisted for over 100 days. Women and young people in Iran, the most active participants in the movement, have burned hijabs, cut women’s hair, and started chants such as “Death to the Dictator.”

The similarities between these messages from influential anti-government figures, in addition to their emphasis on the improved organization of the movement, signal that the group seeks to form a leadership coalition. However, as Elahe Boghrat, Editor in Chief of the London-based Kayhan newspaper, comments via Twitter, “A joint [-ly prepared] tweet for the new western year may be a positive political performance but is not necessarily a [sign of] a ‘coalition.’” Now, more than ever, as the protests have garnered engagement across the country, a leader (or a group of leaders) has become a necessity for change.

The movement, in line with the modern trend of “leaderless protests,” such as those in Hong Kong, is united by its demands for human rights and justice for Amini. Until this point, the lack of a leader has benefitted the cause, empowering its ability to host flash mob-style protests and avoid the repression or detainment of a single protest leader. Many proponents of leaderless protests in Iran cited the detainment of the 2009 Green Movement’s leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as the cause for its failure.

However, a leader is necessary to bring about lasting change in Iran and capitalize on the abundance of passion and engagement of Iranians across social, ethnic, and regional divides.

The lack of top-down organization undermines today’s protests, because, as King’s College Political Theorist Paolo Gerbaudo states, protests are generally “not sustainable in the long term” and lack the “bureaucratic structures that would keep them going.” Current efforts are organized through social media, with individual localized teams carrying out protests. However, without proper organization and leadership at the national level, Iran’s movement will inevitably suffer defeat in the face of its government, unable to initiate coordinated efforts on the national scale.

Further, a central leader is needed as a viable alternative to the current regime. In Iran’s latest protests, a national figure behind whom protesters can rally has yet to emerge, hindering their progress. These efforts, though passionate, are bound for failure. The movement risks stagnation as it becomes trapped in a cycle where protesters are met with crackdown after crackdown, all the while failing to establish a clear aim. Without a leader to establish an explicit alternative to the status quo, that cycle could continue forever, never producing change.

Jonathan Piron, historian and political scientist, also notes that “[a]nger is spreading from group to group, but the lack of an alternative is hindering more people from taking to the streets, even though they probably tacitly support the protesters.” This issue will prove critical if left unaddressed, as it directly limits an element essential to any protest movement: public engagement.

Iran’s protest movement also suffers potentially detrimental political divisions. Despite widespread unity against supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule, differing visions for the future divide protesters. Many, including members of Iran’s young population, are liberal, having grown up in non-conservative households. Gamaan, a Netherlands-based research foundation, finds in a 2022 report that 34% of polled Iranians are in favor of a “secular republic” unassociated with the country’s former monarchy, which preceded the Islamic regime.

However, there are others within the movement that do support the monarchy, with the same poll reporting that 19% of the general population support supplanting the current regime with a constitutional monarchy, and 3% are in favor of an “absolute monarchy.”

Relevant to these divides, Iran International News notes that “the cyber-army of the Islamic Republic is trying more than ever to divide the opposition and supporters of influential figures abroad such as the former Crown Prince and Hamed Esmaeilion by muddying the waters with fake news, negative commenting, making accusations, and aggressively attacking those perceived as rivals.” Divisions within the movement are perilous to its future, demonstrated best by the regime’s attempts to exacerbate them. In the absence of unifying leadership, the movement’s political divisions will remain a point of vulnerability.

The arrival of a leader to guide the anti-regime protests in Iran could be the spark that ignites a full-blown revolution. With a leader at the helm, the energy and momentum of the protests gain the potential to be channeled into a powerful force for change, one that could bring about a transformative shift in the country’s political landscape. 

[Photo by Amir Sarabadani, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

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