Iran's Protests Sealed The Bond Between Expats And Those Who Never Left — Now What?
Mass protests which lasted for months in Iran last year galvanized Iranians at home and abroad, in a way not seen since the 1979 revolution. That unity must be maintained as political capital for the next time Iranians challenge the Islamic Republic.
From the 1979 revolution that brought Iran's Shia clerics to power, to the mass protests of late 2022, Iranians came to accept the idea of an intrinsic divide between those living in post-revolutionary Iran, and those who fled or have simply left during the decades since.
The regime's own propaganda eagerly fueled visions of a hostile, if worthless, population living abroad: supposedly without roots or identity, 'Westoxicated,' to cite one of the regime's cherished terms, selfish, superficial and above all, oblivious to the realities of life in Iran.
Many inside Iran must have absorbed the negative narrative on expatriates, or kharejneshinan, given the regime's relentless hate-mongering, and judging by the resentful treatment Iranians visiting from abroad have sometimes received. Many will have been chided for abandoning their country or "knowing nothing" of the struggles of those who have lived out decades of their lives in a homeland that has become stifling. Others may have been accused of visiting Iran for cheaper medical treatments, or to relive the good old days for a few weeks, before returning to better lives abroad.
Yet who is to blame for the fact that, over the past 40 years, 10% of the country's population have become exiles or emigrants? It would be hard these days to find a family in Iran without a relative living abroad (and that includes the regime's own partisans). The reproaches thrown first at emigrants were grist to the mill of a regime that has cynically divided Iranians on other bases: class, gender, ethnicity, religion or loyalty to its leaders. Fanning resentment all around, the regime likely contributed to expatriates' equally distorted view of Iranians inside the country: they lived off 'wheeling and dealing,' were greedy, needy, superstitious, lazy, envious and in their own way, 'collaborating' to keep the status quo.
But the protests of 2022 broke this artificial divide.
Shocking the regime
The very first reports of a Kurdish girl's killing in police custody in September seemed to revive the scars and seething resentment of every Iranian who had left. Across the globe, there were dispersed but simultaneous gatherings backing the protests inside Iran. This was unprecedented in Iran's modern history, and shocked the regime.
The regime was wrong to think expatriates had become indifferent to the fate of their homeland.
An entire crony class had welcomed the departure of millions of Iranians over four decades — the better to ransack the country at will. Who needs technocrats and a quibbling middle class who won't do as they are told? The dissenting migrants were doing the regime a favor, easing its one-sided rule, and leaving the land to a gang of usurpers.
But as protests and activism abroad revealed, the regime was wrong to think expatriates had become indifferent to the fate of their homeland. Exiles and children of exiles used the political positions they had gained (through opportunities denied to most Iranians in the Islamic Republic) to mobilize Western opinion against an evil regime. The active role of opponents and journalists abroad confounded, once and for all, the regime's calculation that migration meant the elimination of a portion of the population from Iran's socio-political chessboard.
For months, in tandem with protests in Iran, activists denounced the lies peddled by the regime's diplomats — even if the world wanted to listen to the lies, for business-as-usual's sake.
A young Iranian girl without wearing a mandatory headscarf looks at fireworks next to the Azadi (Freedom) monument in western Tehran during a rally commemorating Eid al-Ghadir, July 7, 2023.
Rouzbeh Fouladi via ZUMA
This unusual solidarity upset even the regime's informal lobbyists, those dual-nationals and middlemen who have been peddling the constructive dialogue shibboleth. They could see things were different this time. Some of them changed tack, voicing support for the protests or lambasting the regime they used to whitewash.
Regardless of inevitable divisions in the opposition, the protests of 2022 achieved a historic level of unity among ordinary Iranians everywhere. They reignited a national sentiment and a sense of belonging that has proved to be a tonic to a nation that has become despondent and dispersed. As for the kharejneshinan, they have learned that they can use their financial, social and educational capital abroad to reactivate, aid and even hasten Iran's inevitable transformation.
The inside-outside divide served the regime's ideological and policing purposes, especially its belief that it had seen the back of some Iranians. Now, the revival of this popular solidarity, if cherished and nurtured, can come to serve the cause of Iran's transition to democracy.
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