Democracy is the answer for Iran, not a return to the Shah

By IVAN SASCHA SHEEHAN | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES • Originally published on April 27, 2023

The Islamic Republic of Iran has posed a significant challenge for Western policymakers since the establishment of the theocracy by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 44 years ago. But Iranians’ uncompromising pursuit of civil and political liberties may finally be paying off.

Though the latest round of anti-government protests were sparked by the killing of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, by the so-called “morality police” for reportedly wearing a headscarf incorrectly in September 2022, the uprising quickly metastasized with Iranians taking to the streets to participate in a country-wide rebellion and insisting on the removal of the clerical regime in its entirety.

According to the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), more than 750 people have been killed over the past seven months in the regime’s latest crackdowns, with 30,000 others arrested. Although some media outlets report lower estimates of both figures, authorities in Tehran claimed in March to have granted amnesty to 22,000 people arrested during the anti-regime uprising, effectively confirming the MEK’s accounts.

While the ayatollahs and their disinformation units try to present an image of normalcy, outrage and defiance persist among ordinary Iranians. The country’s economic and social situation has worsened over the past six months, and indications are that unrest could re-emerge at any moment. The international community cannot afford a failure to understand the political sentiments that drive the people’s thirst for regime change.

As the West adjusts to new realities in Iran, the question of what the future holds has become ever more complicated. This is particularly so with marginal figures and bit players that have been largely inconsequential for years situating themselves among the regime’s credible opponents. Chief among them is Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah who was deposed in 1979 and died two years later.

Although it is true that Iran during the Shah’s era was vastly different than Iran today, it would be a mistake to conclude that it was a more humane or tolerant era, or one that the Iranians wish to return to. The 1979 revolution was a genuine popular revolt motivated by years of accumulated indignation over the Shah’s corruption and oppression. Most who were alive at the time – including many who participated in the Shah’s overthrow – could not have anticipated that his removal would result in a nearly half-century of theocratic rule by mullahs who would themselves become despised.

But the Shah’s lavish and brutal rule is hardly forgotten.

Just over a year before the revolution, The Village Voice observed that torture by the Shah’s secret police was a “national pastime” in Iran. The Shah expanded the Pahlavi dynasty’s wealth by “simply stealing it” from his subjects. A large portion of that wealth was expatriated when he fled the throne, and it would be appropriate to ask whether it is being used to finance his son’s travels and advocacy for the restoration of his familial dynasty today. In 1981, Reza Pahlavi vowed to pursue that goal in front of his father’s tomb. READ MORE …

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