Hundreds of Iranian expats gathered over the weekend outside the famous Bayerischer Hof Hotel, the venue of the 2023 Munich Security Conference (MSC), to show solidarity with anti-regime protests in Iran. Their demand was clear: the Iranian regime must be overthrown, and a democratic, secular government be installed in its place.
Massive protests kicked off in Iran in September 2022 after 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini died following her arrest by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic's strict dress code. Since then, at least 529 people have been killed in demonstrations, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been tracking the crackdown. Over 19,700 people have been detained by authorities.
Women have played a leading role in the protests, with many publicly taking off their hijabs, the compulsory Islamic headscarf. The protests have marked one of the biggest challenges to Iran's Shiite regime since the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, which paved the way for clerical rule.
Inside the MSC venue, Masih Alinejad, a renowned Iranian-American activist and journalist, expressed her concern over a lack of coordinated support for Iranian protesters from the international community.
"Leaders of the democratic countries keep saying that we stand with the people of Iran … We don't need empty words," Alinejad told DW following a panel discussion on the issue.
"Of course, we see a change in their tone towards Iran, which is great, especially the US kicking out the Islamic Republic from one of the top women's bodies from the UN. But we want the Western countries to announce their policy towards Iran, to isolate the regime the way they isolated Russian President Vladimir Putin," she added.
Lack of coordinated effort from the West
The protests in Iran have begun losing steam, but pro-democracy activists are not ready to give up. At the end of last week, protesters once again took to the streets in several Iranian cities.
"I have been focused on Iran for two decades in the US Congress," Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during an MSC panel discussion. "We hope that Iran can be a secular and democratic country someday. For those who believe that the current protests in Iran will be similar to those in the past, they are tragically confused."
The US senator, however, did not specify what kind of support Washington would provide to Iran's anti-regime protesters.
Reza Pahlavi, the son of the shah overthrown during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and who now lives in the US, has demanded a coordinated approach from the West on the Iran issue. "Iranians needs solidarity for the principles they are fighting for. We want the world to be unified [in their support for Iranian protesters] the way they expect us to be unified. Apart from maximum pressure on the Iranian regime, we also expect maximum support for the Iranian people," he said during a panel.
Hannah Neumann, a member of the European Parliament, said the European Union is aware of its responsibility toward Iran's pro-democracy movement. "The [Islamic] regime does not represent the people of Iran," she told the panel. "As long as this regime kills its own people, we are not going to negotiate with them."
Concerns about instability
There is criticism that the West is looking at the Iranian situation through the geopolitical lens, a stance echoed by Neumann at the panel. Tehran's nuclear ambition and the stalled 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear program appear to be a bigger concern for the international community.
"The Iranian regime with nuclear weapons is a problem [...] The best way to get rid of the nuclear threat is to get rid of the regime," said Neumann.
The EU lawmaker also said it has become even more crucial to address the Iranian situation because of the Islamic regime's support for Russia.
There is also some apprehension about Iran becoming unstable in the wake of a possible regime collapse.
Women's rights activist Masih Alinejad believes Iran's rulers want the international community to believe Iran will turn into another Syria if they lose power.
"That's wrong. We have a progressive society [and we] are ready to have an Iran without the Islamic Republic. The time has come for the leaders of democratic countries to see an Iran without the Islamic Republic," she said.
Pahlavi added that a post-regime Iran would bring stability to the region. "It will be a different Iran. It won't be warmongering, won't be shooting rockets across the border […] or send[ing] drones to attack another country's citizens."
Edited by: J. Wingard