Ever since Iran’s 1979 revolution replaced a modernizing monarchy with an Islamist totalitarian regime, the people of Iran have suffered greatly but failed to come together in one unified opposition. Ideological divisions, rivalries, and distrust have been exploited by the ruling cabal, which has used the full panoply of regime-survival tactics—from assassination of opposition leaders to disinformation operations to reincarnations of the mythical prospect of “reform.” The effect has been to confuse, intimidate, demoralize, atomize, and disempower Iranians, both inside the country and in the diaspora.
That there has emerged now a concerted people-power campaign for the peaceful overthrow of the Islamic Republic and transition to liberal democracy is a testament to the Iranians’ refusal to play by the rules of their oppressors any longer. Launched in just the last few weeks with a plain but captivating slogan and graphic, the international “No to the Islamic Republic!” (or “N2IR”) campaign is a call to any and all who oppose a regime that has left no Iranian family untouched by its evil.
The No! sentiment is simple, clear, and unmistakable. It means no to those who have denied Iranians their dignity. It means rejecting the theocracy and its ideology. It means the repudiation of the tired old reformist-vs.-hardliner trope. It is a revolutionary call, but altogether different from that of 1979: There is no anti-Western ideology, no fanatical leader, no call to arms, no promise of Islamist utopia. No to the Islamic Republic! is, rather, a peaceful, rational, secular, humanist call to win a future of democratic freedom for Iranians of different backgrounds and beliefs.
It is a call to join the world.
Among those who took the early lead in the campaign are the mothers and fathers of peaceful protesters shot to death in November 2019, when Iranians poured out onto the streets in over 200 cities. More than 1,500 courageous souls were killed, many with a bullet to the head or the heart, and thousands more imprisoned and tortured. They are joined by the parents of countless more killed by the regime in successive waves of terror and repression, and by exiled Iranians around the world. Among those, the former Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi has from Washington joined the campaign, seeing in it the fruition of his calls for moral clarity and union for nonviolent overthrow.
Iranians of every economic background, lifestyle, and worldview are using the campaign’s hashtag on social networks, describing their personal heartaches and their opposition to the regime.
An outgrowth of the campaign has been the call for a boycott of Iran’s next presidential election, scheduled for June. Like many other despotic governments that make a show of pseudo-democracy, the Iranian regime counts on turnout. Having not seen a single promise of reform prove true, Iranians have come to understand that the “reformist” politicians are guilty of some of the regime’s biggest lies, ineptitude, and corruption, and complicit in the Supreme Leader’s calls for killing.
To put it another way, Iranians have come to see that the Islamic Republic is not amenable to incremental change. It cannot be “reformed.” It must end.
Disillusionment with reform has gone hand in hand with fury over economic hardship and corruption. All this existed well before the imposition of “maximum pressure” by the Trump administration, as Iranians broke out in protest over high prices and unaccountability back in 2017-18, while the nuclear deal was still in effect, and when they were meant to be benefiting from the deal’s largesse and empowerment of the so-called moderate faction.
With the onslaught of sanctions and added economic strife, not only did Iranians not rally to the flag, they grew more serious about their labor strikes, street protests, open letters of dissent, and other acts of defiance with slogans that made clear their conviction that the enemy of the people is the regime, not America. The assassination of top terror leader Qassem Soleimani was met with jubilation and gratitude by Iranians in their private homes and their pseudonymous social media accounts.
Unfortunately, the campaign faces a new U.S. administration that apparently seeks to sustain the Islamic Republic as a legitimate regional power. Iranian dissidents have written to President Biden pleading that he not pursue this appeasement policy of removing sanctions pressure on the regime. The sooner the United States and the rest of the free world understand the magnitude of the triumph that the people of Iran can achieve, the sooner they can secure a lasting peace for the entire Middle East.