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What's really behind the Iranian crown prince visiting Israel?
It could be a gambit for opposition leadership as Saudi support dries up.
Exiled Iranian crown prince Reza Pahlavi visited Israel this week, on a tour guided by Israeli intelligence minister Gila Gamliel. Although elements of the Iranian opposition and the Israeli government have flirted with each other for some time, the visit was the most high-profile statement of support ever.
The timing and message are a little puzzling. Right now, the Iranian government is launching a new dystopian crackdown on hijab-less women. And reports of mysterious schoolgirl poisonings continue to torment the country. With the situation in Iran continuing to deteriorate and the weather getting warmer, the opposition has an opportunity to support a revived uprising inside the country.
Instead of addressing the current situation, Pahlavi’s announcement could have been written any time over the past few years. It focused on getting Israeli expertise to deal with Iran’s water problems, which were particularly acute several months ago, and promised to “re-establish ties with Israel and our Arab neighbors,” even though Iran already normalized with Arab states last month.
The trip makes the most sense in the context of intra-opposition politics. As part of the Arab-Iranian reconciliation deal, Saudi Arabia agreed to tone down support for Iranian opposition groups in exile. Even factions that weren’t Saudi-backed found themselves in a movement with less resources and fewer potential patrons.
Israel is the natural alternative. Among the foreign-based opposition, then, anyone who could present themselves to Israel as the representative of Iranians and to Iranians as the Israeli choice would have an advantage in claiming leadership. Pahlavi was well-positioned to do both.
The Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsaat concluded its coverage of Pahlavi’s trip on a pretty interesting note:
Pahlavi's visit comes amidst doubts in his ability to unite the Iranian opposition, as he has tried to promote himself more than ever after the recent protests that shook Iran last September.
Pahlavi has implicitly announced his withdrawal from a charter he signed with media personalities, artists, and prominent activists to present an alternative to the current regime in Iran. Pahlavi said earlier this month that he cannot be limited to a single political framework, after the failure of his attempt to expand the charter by bringing in his supporters.
Although Pahlavi shares the demand of establishing a secular regime with the majority of opposition factions, he faces a very difficult task in mobilizing support for a return to power, given the opposition he faces from left-wing and republican parties, in addition to ethnic groups.
Pahlavi left Iran at the age of 17 to attend military flight school in the United States, before his cancer-stricken father Mohammad Reza Pahlavi abdicated and died in exile.
The “charter” refers to a coalition agreement announced by eight opposition figures at a February 2023 meeting at Georgetown University and finalized a month later. The agreement was supposed to represent the broadest possible front, everyone from monarchists to Kurdish socialists. Pahlavi had previously said that he does not want to reclaim the throne, and is simply lending his name to the pro-democracy movement.
But a few days ago, Pahlavi announced that he had disagreements with his coalition partners and “will not limit myself to one group.” Soon after, Pahlavi revealed his upcoming trip to Israel. Notably, the announcements for the trip used the term “crown prince.”
The message was unmistakeable: Pahlavi has both the right and the ability to be treated as the head of the Iranian nation, as the Israeli government is doing, and the rest of the opposition should understand that they need him more than he needs them.
The Saudi newspaper article conveyed a similar message: Pahlavi needs his foreign patrons more than they need him. Perhaps someone in Riyadh was unhappy with the crown prince trying to poach former Saudi clients on Israel’s behalf. Or perhaps the author just wanted to drive home the weak position that Pahlavi finds himself in.
Therein lies the danger in opposition movements taking foreign support. A state like Saudi Arabia (or Iran) wants to use its clients as leverage, turning foreign rebellions on or off in order to pressure rival states. But the very existence of an off-switch cuts against the mandate of a revolutionary movement, which is to rebel until the regime is broken and justice is done.
Israel at least portrays the Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat, which means that it ostensibly shares the opposition’s goal of a total victory. Israeli support doesn’t come for free, either, though. Pahlavi’s visit helps the Israeli government position itself as the champion of the oppressed, at a time when Israel is viewed internationally through the lens of police beating Palestinians and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waging war against the judiciary.
Some of Pahlavi’s supporters have argued that Israel is more popular among Iranians than previously assumed, and that the crown prince’s outreach is a real visionary moment. Of course, the Iranians most inclined to support Israel are the ones who are already nostalgic for the monarchy.
Although it’s impossible to know for sure under a police state, it’s likely that many Iranians roll their eyes at official anti-Israel rhetoric, and that many of those Iranians also do not want to be subordinate to Israeli interests. Netanyahu is well-known for threatening to bomb Iran, a position that all but the most radical opposition in exile distance themselves from.
Mitra Jashni, a leader in the monarchist Farashgard movement, recently tried to label Masih Alinejad, a member of the Georgetown coalition, as an anti-Israel antisemite. Jashni’s evidence was a series of old statements by Alinejad supporting Palestinians and equating the struggles of Iranian and Palestinian women.
The attack was clearly meant to support Pahlavi’s power grab. (Alinejad herself has taken pro-Israel stances and cozied up to pro-Israel groups lately.) But the old statements reveal that there is space in Iran for pro-democracy politics that are also suspicious of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
“The government of Iran has defended Palestine for thirty-odd years, but never talks about Palestinian women's right to choose,” Alinejad captioned a 2015 post about a Palestinian protest. “Their smiles while being arrested by Israeli soldiers show their triumph, those with hijab and those without hijab fighting shoulder-to-shoulder.”
It’s a message that may resonate with Iranians — just not one that foreign patrons would want to hear.
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