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Why does the Iranian opposition continue to support a failed approach?

The Iran-Saudi pact proved that isolation, sanctions and maximum pressure are failed policies that never brought change. So why does the foreign opposition continue to push for them?
Anti-government protesters hold up placards and flags during a march marking the 44th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, in Trafalgar Square, central London on 11 February 2023 (AFP)

There has been no shortage of language to describe the relationship, or lack thereof, between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the past decade. But the Middle East's two most prominent pillars of power seem to have come to a truce.

The China-brokered deal did not fall out of the sky. Rather, it is the product of almost five years of sometimes tepid diplomacy, bookmarked by the Trump administration's assassination of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who was acting as an interlocutor between Riyadh and Tehran on the night of his killing.

If these isolationist, pro-sanctions policies didn't work for the most powerful country on earth, then why does the opposition keep pushing them as key to the collapse of the Islamic Republic?

Iran and Bahrain are now also talking, while the powerful secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, visited the UAE on 16 March.

There are many lessons in this diplomatic flurry - primarily, that isolation, sanctions and maximum pressure are failed policies.

The story goes, isolation was supposed to change Iran's "behaviour". Meanwhile, wide-ranging sanctions and maximum pressure were supposed to halt the nuclear programme and, unofficially, lead to "regime change".

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But here we are.

The Islamic Republic is still heavily involved in regional politics, including in Iraq. Iran's ally, Bashar al-Assad, is still Syria's president and is being welcomed back into the global fold, even in the Arab world.

Domestically, Iran's nuclear programme continues to develop, despite sanctions, assassinations and sabotage. And, most recently, Tehran's circle of elites has so far survived the crisis of legitimacy and protest after the September death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Enter the foreign-based opposition.

If these isolationist, pro-sanctions policies didn't work for the most powerful country on earth and its ally - the US and Saudi Arabia - then why does the opposition keep pushing them as key to the collapse of the Islamic Republic?

Isolating Iran

On 10 March, the newly formed Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran (ADFI), released its charter to unify the fragmented Iranian diaspora and spell out its plan for the transition to a democratic Iran.

The plan, which "relies initially on activities outside of the country", states that "the isolation of the Islamic government internationally is a first and necessary step" in achieving its goal to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Isolation apparently involves five steps, including the expulsion of Islamic Republic ambassadors and all "dependents" in those countries.

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Further, it seeks to "facilitate any means necessary to aid the people of Iran".

What that exactly means is unclear, and given the track record of regime change projects in the modern Middle East, it is somewhat alarming.

The document has not received much enthusiasm among the Iranian public, who were busy preparing for Nowruz, struggling with endemic inflation and dealing with the fallout of five months of protest. But it has been crucified by hardline media as a foreign-sponsored vanity project, and more importantly, in an op-ed in the leading reformist daily, Shargh, as lacking a basic understanding of Iran as a nation.

The first six signatories to the charter have become some of the most prominent faces in the diaspora and several have voiced support for sanctions in the past, including the Trump maximum pressure strategy.

They are unapologetically black and white on how to deal with the Islamic Republic, and so far have successfully lobbied the UN to kick Iran off the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and have also succeeded in pushing the European Parliament to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Iranian armed forces a terror organisation.

The group is continuing to lobby individual governments to do the same. But just how these campaigns help Iranian protesters or prisoners is unclear.

It's even vaguer as to how ending Iran's participation in a UN commission, or a non-binding European resolution, might collapse the Islamic Republic.

Nonetheless, the opposition is pushing for full economic and diplomatic isolation.

A 'vanity project'

It remains to be seen what expelling Iranian diplomats and their families would achieve. After all, Iranian diplomats have, for years, been expelled the world over for a variety of misdeeds, including by Saudi Arabia and the UK, and not even the most creative leap in logic could conclude that these expulsions have led to democratic change in Iran.

Further, it is unlikely any of Iran's major trading partners (i.e., anyone that matters) would entertain the idea.

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It may be a blow to the diaspora ego, but the biggest sparks for change in the Islamic Republic have always come from internal pressures, not external ones. Regime change devotee John Bolton couldn't even tip the tables on that.

Take, for example, the most intense protests, beginning in 1999, when students staged protests at Tehran University over the closure of the popular reformist newspaper, Salaam. A decade later, in 2009, the biggest protests in the history of the Islamic Republic took place amid a widespread belief the presidential election was rigged. Then in 2019, a long-touted cut in fuel subsidies caused a violent revolt. Reports suggest that 1,500 people were killed in the ensuing crackdown.

If the opposition wants to be seen as more than a performative vanity project and gain legitimacy outside of regime change diaspora communities and TikTokers, it needs to understand policy - and so far, it doesn't.

Isolation makes it easier for the state to stifle dissent. Sanctions harm ordinary people, not the elite. And with respect to Iran, neither leads to a change in the status quo.

Lobbying could have focused on pushing the EU to end its discriminatory visa practices so Iranians could gain employment and education abroad. After all, regular Iranians struggle to get visas to Europe, let alone audiences with prime ministers or speaking slots in Munich.

Meanwhile, US lobbying efforts could have focused on removing sanctions on banking and technology to make it easier for Iranians to pay for services abroad, including medication, or services that help circumvent the state's internet blackouts.

More than one Iran policy expert has described the diaspora's focus as an extraordinary waste of effort and resources. And if they haven't learnt from the Saudi experience, then the movement is already dead in the water.

There are 84 million people in Iran who are living with the consequences of failed policies every day. The opposition need not add to it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Soraya Lennie is an investigative journalist, analyst and the author of Crooked Alleys: Deliverance and Despair in Iran (HURST, 2021). Since 2006, she has covered stories across the world, including the war against ISIS, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris terror attacks and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. She has spent more than a decade based in the Middle East, including Tehran and Kabul, for various international news organisations, such as Al Jazeera English and TRT WORLD. Lennie has also contributed to CNN, BBC, Washington Post and Vogue.
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