Foreign Policy Blogs

The Diaspora’s Role in Iran’s Struggle for Democracy


Courtesy of Hadi Ebrahimi/

Courtesy of Hadi Ebrahimi/ 

Blogger’s Note

The following is a co-authorship piece by Soushiant Zangenehpour and Alireza Ahmadian.

The 2009 (S)election Shock: What Happened?

Nearly four years ago today, the world witnessed an orchestrated mass deception called “election” unfold over the course of a few hours in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some of us in Vancouver, Canada drove to Seattle to vote hoping to see the departure of the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We returned home to a distorted reality; an Ahmadinejad landslide “victory.”

The unfathomable election results were announced by midday, in a country where hand counting prevails. In the days following this deceitful “victory,” we witnessed a moving and powerful display of coordinated, creative and non-violent civil disobedience from millions of Iranians who demanded a recount under the campaign of “Where is my vote?” Their peaceful protests were met with sheer brutality. Horror stories unfolded in the days ensuing.

As the brutality evolved, so did the movement. For the first time in Iran’s contemporary history, citizens en masse openly demanded the removal of the Supreme Leader and the replacement of the Islamic Republic with that of an Iranian Republic!

The Diaspora’s Response: Nurturing Responsibility through Activism:

Inspired by the displays of humanity and courage, members of the diaspora community tried to raise awareness about the plight of democracy in Iran through various forms of activism. Following the media crackdown and Internet blockade, a core group of young Iranian Canadian students and professionals in Vancouver banded together to try to use our access to networks and credibility to raise awareness, mobilize the community and exert public international pressure on the regime.

Along other activists, we founded “Silent Scream for Iran,” a 14-night silent candle light vigil campaign to convene the ideologically fragmented diaspora community to stand in solidarity and echo the voices of the voiceless citizens demanding change inside Iran. As young organizers we had no political affiliations, so the vigils were regarded as a neutral and trusted convening mechanism, growing to attract over 5,000 people every night. The somber and moving images of the community standing in solidarity went viral, gaining national and international recognition and attracting support from highest elected officials in Canada including the Prime Minister’s Office and Official Opposition.

Leading that initiative over the summer transformed many of us from bystanders with a loose sense of engagement into activists committed to leveraging the freedom we enjoyed outside Iran to exert pressure on the Iranian state. We developed a shared sense of ownership about the struggle for democratic accountability, many of us optimistic that this sense of responsibility would carry through for the rest of our lives.

Current Circumstances:

Over the past four years, however, many regressive phenomena have unfolded that call into question the degree to which we exercise agency and commitment to championing what we once believed was the broad public interest of Iranians.

First, with the crushing defeat of the reform and protest movement, a deep-rooted sense of apathy has crept in about the possibility of pragmatic change in Iran. This coupled with the lack of a viable political alternative to the regime or a roadmap carving a constructive path forward has exacerbated the sense of apathy amongst the youth and young professionals, many of whom have been the driving force behind the protests.

Second, since the last elections we have witnessed widespread and systematic violations of human rights and civic liberties by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This abuse with impunity has decimated any available space (online and offline) for public dissent.

Third, in the absence of promising legitimate and grass-roots initiatives, some members of the diaspora have exercised political opportunism to champion self-serving policies that do not reflect broad public sentiments or serve the interests of Iranians inside Iran. Taken collectively, these phenomena compel each one of us who at one point demonstrated a strong commitment to working for the betterment of the country to deeply reflect on how we might continue exercising such necessary stewardship moving forward.

Paths Forward:

To move with intent through this seemingly paralytic circumstances and period, members of the diaspora who remain committed to defending the rights of citizens in Iran must:

  1. Internationalize human rights pressure and neutralize warmongers. We must continue lobbying world authorities to exert pressure on Iran for its systematic human rights violations, while simultaneously identifying and publicly disproving political opportunists, who may operate under the pre-tense of human rights to support war. We should encourage democracies to target violators of human rights through smart, targeted sanctions instead of broad punitive measures while openly welcoming regime officials who repent to join the people’s movement.

  2. Build capacity in the practice of democracy. We in the diaspora must stop decreeing the need for democracy and start learning how to build democratic institutions by practicing democratic accountability. Building greater tolerance and respect for the rule of law, due process, and procedures – the cornerstones of democratic institutions – though practice will increase the resilience of our initiatives, giving them a longer shelf life and stronger normative power in persuading decision-makers.

  3. Learn to mobilize and campaign. We should learn to mobilize community members better to support the pursuit of rational and even-handed policies regarding Iran, for the benefit of those on the receiving end of policies inside the country. Many of us living in the West are citizens, pay taxes and enjoy enshrined rights. We have an opportunity to make our voices heard. This will help mitigate the extent to which charismatic opportunists capture broad public agendas with special interests.

  4. Don’t overstep our mandate. Irrespective of (s)election results, we in the diaspora must balance our commitment to echoing the voice of the voiceless with our own inclinations for driving the agenda forward from the outside. We must remember there are many citizens inside Iran perfectly capable of developing progressive ideas to advance democracy, but simply lack the necessary political space to nurture them. We must continue echoing their voices while proactively invalidating wild fantasies that meaningful change in Iran will come from restoring the monarchy or implanting an illegitimate puppet regime led by a former terrorist organization.

  5. Remain patient. Authentic social changes are never decreed or legislated. We should remain patient and realize that democracy is not granted, but earned through an enduring process. We can try to accelerate that process through consistency and concentration in executing our strategies.

Soushiant Zanganehpour (@soushiant) and Alireza Ahmadian (@ahmadianalireza) were two of the founding members of the 2009 “Silent Scream for Iran” movement launched in Vancouver, Canada. Soushiant managed a policy program focused on exploring the motivations and implications of Iran’s nuclear technology advancements at a leading Canadian disarmament and nonproliferation think tank (The Simons Centre). He is now the Strategy & Operations Manager of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University and continues working with Iran human rights NGOs in London and elsewhere in an advisory capacity. Alireza is an international affairs analyst and commentator for the BBC Persian Network and World News. He blogs at the Foreign Policy Association and the BBC Persian.



Alireza Ahmadian

Alireza Ahmadian is an Iranian Canadian political analyst and writer whose work has appeared on forums such as openDemocracy, the Foreign Policy Association Blog, and BBC Persian Blog's Nazeran Migooyand [Observers say...]. He has also appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian TV to discuss world affairs.

Ahmadian’s main interests are foreign policy, diplomacy and social justice issues, especially those related to Iran, and U.S. and Canada's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Ahmadian has a Master of Arts from the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, England’s renowned School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and is currently a research student in Global Studies. He previously studied History at the University of British Columbia and speaks fluent Persian, English and intermediate Arabic.

You can follow him on Twitter: @ahmadianalireza