It’s Time for a Provisional Government in Iran: On November 18, 2022, Iranian protestors burned down the house of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic, in the central Iranian town of Khomein. The episode was symbolic. Whereas the Iranian regime’s self-described reformists and their fellow travelers in the West tried to spin previous protest waves as limited in scope to opposition just to hardline factions rather than the regime itself, today’s protestors drive a stake into any claim of regime legitimacy.
More than two months into protests sparked by the regime’s murder of Mahsa Amini, a young woman security forces deemed inappropriately dressed, the Iranian regime appears no closer to ending the uprising. Iranians are angry, and they see no future under the system imposed first by Khomeini and continued today by ailing supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
While the protests have delegitimized the regime, its Western supporters, and the Mujahedin al-Khalq, it is unclear whether they will be enough to topple the regime. The problem is that while the movement represents the outrage of Iranian society, it has yet to morph into something more. There is no clear leadership, nor has it evolved a platform beyond expressing anger at the regime.
If the Iranian protest movement is to morph into an Iranian freedom movement, it is time to take the next step. Iranians must form a provisional government in Iran in order to sketch out the future shape of the Iranian government. Whereas exclusion characterized Khomeini’s rule, they should embrace the inclusion of every group that eschews violence as a means of enforcing its political will.
Diaspora should stand aside. They failed decades ago and left Iranians to their fate. Most diaspora groups are 40 men, each running a newspaper and claiming to be a general. They might contribute money or donate technical expertise, but they should not aspire to power. Nor should exiles ostracize Iran’s current civil service. They represent a constituency to coopt, not defeat. They will be the backbone of transition. Their jobs should be safe.
That said, there is an obvious role for Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted shah. While Iranians likely do not want a restoration of the monarchy, they do recognize the former crown prince as a unifier. When I lived in the Islamic Republic, a quarter century ago, merchants in Isfahan and Tehran reminisced about how the economy and merchandise available were better under the shah. There was an element of the grass always being greener in their complaints, but perception is often more important than reality. A decade later, I watched Iranians living inside the Islamic Republic from leftist circles long opposed to the monarchy meet the shah’s son at a wedding in Florida where he was serving as the best man, recognize him, and kneel down as if the past decades had never happened. For these ordinary Iranians, the shah’s son symbolized a more tolerant, prosperous era. The former crown prince is self-aware enough to realize the flaws of his father. He seeks not to impose or claim power, but to build coalitions. He is a consensus figure who can organize a constitutional convention and allow the Iranians leading protests today to consolidate, unify and, ultimately, lead. He can mediate while Iranians from across the ethnic and political spectrum debate and vote upon the parameters of a provisional government.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, former Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan could have played a similar for Iraq, but ultimately dallied, delayed, and deferred and missed his moment. Reza Pahlavi should not repeat his error. He should return to the region. He might defy Iranian-backed militias and visit the Shrine of Imam Hussein in Najaf, and then he could sit for consultations at Neauphle-le-Château. He should be a presence in Dubai and Baku.
Whereas cynics might repeat arguments from the run-up to the Iraq War and say democracy is not a foreign concept to Iranians, they would simply show themselves to be ignorant of Iranian history. In 1905, Iranians inspired by the creation of the Duma in Russia successfully unleased their own constitutional revolution. They succeeded to constrain the monarchy and create a real parliamentary democracy that survived for a decade or so before reactionary forces subsumed it. Regardless, Iran is not Iraq. There is no role for any outside state’s intervention or imposition, beyond strike funds, communications and other resources and moral support. It is time to transform the Mahsa Amini uprising into Iran’s second Mashrutiyyat.
The Islamic Republic began not with Khomeini’s return to Tehran, but rather with a referendum to vote on the Islamic Republic as a system of government. What began with a referendum can end with a referendum. Khamenei will soon die. The only question is whether his death will be inside Iran or whether he will spend his final weeks in cancer-stricken exile as did Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. It is essential when he departs, Iranians have a platform to advance their state in order to prevent a new supreme leader or Revolutionary Guard commanders from seeking to consolidate a new dictatorship.
Iranians want more and deserve better.
Expert Author Biography: Dr. Michael Rubin, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.