Reza Pahlavi, former crown prince of Iran, speaks about current events in Iran at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, on January 15, 2020. Photo: AFP

There is no shortage of critical commentary, analysis and coverage of the undemocratic practices of the Iranian government and its defiance of its international obligations. In newspapers and on cable television and online platforms, a fusillade of alarming updates is fired every day at Iran’s nuclear program, its imprisonment of journalists, political activists and dual nationals, and its regional escapades.

To be sure, governance structures are flawed, social fissures are deepening rapidly, promises of adherence to human rights are mere window-dressing and, because of inveterate mismanagement, the national economy is collapsing, as are the livelihoods of millions of Iranians.

Against this backdrop, it might appear that “negative” accounts of Iran are cropping up in TV news bulletins and newspaper front pages more frequently, and commentators are predisposed to be more scrupulous when contemplating the oil-rich nation’s developments.

Yet the truth is that Iran is not getting so much unfavorable attention because it is an unmatched cesspool of authoritarianism, militancy, poverty and human-rights abuses. Publicity around Iran is in part swayed by a constellation of influential, well-off opposition groups in exile, which despite a clear lack of uniformity and congruity, aspire to overthrow the Islamic Republic and replace it with a democracy.

Indeed, introducing democracy to Iran would be a lofty ideal to contribute to and fight for. Any sane mind would agree that a pluralistic government that caters to the needs of every citizen and refrains from intruding into people’s lives would be an epiphany for a nation that has lived through a checkered history of foreign intervention and domestic repression for some 200 years.

But are these kaleidoscopic opposition groups the “saviors” that will cultivate democracy in Iran and put national interest above anything else when they rule the roost, including ideological dogmas, ethnic divisions and partisan interests? The answer is a clear, if not resounding, “no.”

Amid the numerous opposition factions operating in the form of think-tanks, advocacy organizations, political action networks, armed groups and separatist parties, some cliques tend to be household names.


The most notable is Mujahedin-e-Khalq, which has touted “democratic regime change” as its key principle. Until 2012, MEK was on the US State Department’s blacklist of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The decision of then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton to de-list it was a bombshell, incensing Iranians of all stripes, including those who didn’t sympathize with the government in Tehran.

Aside from its perfidious alliance with Saddam Hussein during the internecine Iran-Iraq War in 1980s, when it opened fire on its fellow citizens in multiple operations, MEK has worked in cahoots with some of the most reactionary politicians in the United States and far-right parties in Europe, and accepted funding from Saudi Arabia, to advocate for augmented sanctions on Iran.

It is indeed the entitlement of every advocacy or lobbying organization to peddle the narratives it finds favorable and attuned to its collective mindset, and invest in influencing public opinion to further its agenda.

The caveat concerning MEK’s worldview and methods, however, is that, although the organization is no longer officially recognized as a terrorist entity by the US government, it is so cryptic in its workings and so unethical in its conduct that the majority of Iranians reckon it to be a shadowy cult, leaving it with little to zero credibility among the populace it professes to be fighting for.

How much funding MEK receives remains a mystery, like the fate of its erstwhile leader Massoud Rajavi, who went missing in Iraq in 2003, and the organization refuses to let anyone get wind of his whereabouts or possible death. But what can be inferred from scattered pieces of information available is that the outfit rakes in substantial outlays, and spends them freewheelingly.

The dissident group, for example, donated €971,890 (around US$1 million) to Spain’s far-right party Vox between December 2013 and April 2014 to coax its leaders to pressure the Iranian government and gainsay it in its public pronouncements.

The thrust to persuade then-US president Barack Obama’s administration to unban MEK was actually a multimillion-dollar campaign, including paychecks of US$1.5 million to three leading Washington lobby firms, DLA Piper, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and DiGenova & Toensing.

Even so, what is more menacing about MEK is that despite its frequent invocation of the idea of democracy and its espousal of civil liberties, its affiliates and activists have long resorted to undemocratic tactics, propaganda techniques and coercion to silence their critics and proselytize their doctrine.

Investigative journalists have documented how MEK has been financing troll farms across Europe to manipulate the discourse on Iran on social media, unleash vitriol on journalists and academics who push for a more nuanced understanding of Iran affairs, and implant misinformation in the global media’s coverage of the Middle East.

In one instance in April, Facebook shuttered 300 MEK-associated accounts believed to have been run from a troll farm in Albania.

There is no evidence negating that the MEK leadership and members do not tolerate criticism toward their policies and actions, and this is in some measure an upshot of the MEK’s cult-like nature demanding unconditional homage to the institutional diktat.

To cite a personal experience, I was the subject of a whopping smear campaign back in 2017 when I published an article in The Huffington Post deploring the French government for providing a safe haven to the MEK and condoning its recourse to violence in the past.

As soon as the story went viral, hundreds of Twitter accounts began slandering me – posting identically worded tweets – as an apologist of the Islamic Republic, and some of them went so far as to claim that I was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps!

But I was not the last journalist to be earmarked for MEK mudslinging. Describing the group’s critics as being on the payroll of the Islamic Republic is a convenient way of undermining their impartiality and professional credentials, which unfortunately works to fool uncritical, credulous laymen.

Pahlavi monarchists

The other major coalition of dissidents includes the monarchists, scattered across Europe and North America, who sing the praises of the dethroned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and wish the country to be once again ruled by the Pahlavi clan, epitomized by the late Shah’s vaunted son Reza Pahlavi now residing in Washington, DC.

The monarchists are not as notorious as MEK, enjoy a wider popular base, represent a louder voice and often get access to leading US think-tanks and media organizations. They are also doing well in terms of raising funds for their regime-change advocacy, and their chieftain, Reza Pahlavi, is a more palatable personality than MEK figureheads.

Yet, slowly, it is dawning on more people that the future of Iran in the hands of Reza Pahlavi and his devotees would not necessarily be that of a free and democratic nation. At least the media corporations and public personalities championing the revival of monarchy are unwittingly imparting such an impression.

Manoto TV and Iran International, two popular London-based outlets broadcasting for the Persian-speaking audiences with marked monarchial leanings, are finding their standing dented as a result of overt bias against the Iranian government, now extending into prejudice against the entirety of Iran as a geopolitical reality, altering their function as media organizations into opposition mouthpieces.

Cloying sketches of the Islamic Republic’s “atrocities” and “barbarity” have yielded coverage that is neither professional nor standard, but merely indoctrinating.

Instead, extravagant ovations for the Pahlavi family, together with occasional publicity for separatist groups wishing to split the country into pieces, and even giving airtime to notorious members of violent groups who have carried out terror operations in Iran, have worked in tandem to make these networks platforms for anti-regime agitprop rather than objective reporting.

High-profile correspondents and anchors work with these stations, which means they have been successful in recruiting seasoned staff. But even they do not engage in candid debate about the policies and performance of their media organizations, and when they do, reception of criticism is rare, and in many cases, troll armies identifying with them bombard the proponents of alternative views on social media with threats and insults.

Mirroring their foes

The problem with the Iranian opposition groups is not that they are outspoken in their opprobrium of the government or see no better alternative than regime change. Also, it is not a hindrance that virtually all opposition factions are based outside the country and make prescriptions for a strangled population to jump through hoops to confront the government, while themselves enjoying the freedom and safety of Western states.

The main issue is that in creating a discourse and momentum to counter the Islamic Republic, the opposition is almost replicating the negative policies and practices of the very regime it wants deposed.

Trying to warn against the perils of ideological governance and political Islam, the opposition is indulging in bad-mouthing the entire community of Muslims and denigrating a faith 1.5 billion people practice worldwide.

Painting Muslims as backward and retrograde, including Iranian adherents who don’t necessarily toe the government line in determining their lifestyle, has become the new normal exuded by the diaspora dissidents and their media strongholds.

Bickering on social media and trading expletives with their detractors instead of encouraging civil and respectful debate, refusing to admit to and correct errors and rebuffing well-reasoned, cogent criticism are the hallmarks of the online behavior of the majority of the opposition celebrities.

They constantly raise the specter of revenge for the Islamic Republic authorities and their partisans. This doesn’t really smack of a democratic vision.

Their moral decline is mirrored in the fact that they underwrite any option that generates the outcome they seek to realize – regime change – be it foreign intervention, multiplied economic sanctions, instigation of street violence or the geographical disintegration of the country.

Of course, there are eminent individuals in the ranks of opposition, but they are exceptions to a cast-iron rule. As it stands, the opposition has failed to signal that it is a democratic voice, and if its members claim they will bless the future of Iran with universal values, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. The alternative to a bad situation is not a parlous one.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. He was a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.