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Divisions roil Iranian-American protest movement

Amir is still scarred from the torture he endured at the hands of SAVAK, the secret police force that used violent repression to quell dissent when Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Amir grew up in an impoverished area of ​​southern Iran and became involved in left-wing political activities as a student. He wrote for an underground newspaper, read banned books and attended meetings.

Those activities marked him as a dissident and he was detained by SAVAK in 1974. Amir, who asked for his full name to be kept secret for his safety, recalled being beaten with cables and electrocuted for hours. .

When he used the toilet afterwards, he saw his face, twisted and bloodied, reflected in the water.

Given the brutality he faced for his activism, it came as a surprise to Amir to meet supporters of the Shah in what seemed an unlikely place: a protest in the United States.

Protesters gathered outside the UNICEF office in San Francisco, California, in November calling out the names of children reportedly killed in anti-government protests in Iran (File: Amy Osborne/Reuters)

Demonstrations erupted in Iran and around the world after a 22-year-old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini died in September after being arrested by Iran’s vice squad.

Inspired by the protests in his home country, Amir, who has lived in the United States for decades, decided to participate in rallies planned in his area.

But the demonstrations have, for Amir, underlined the bitter divisions within the Iranian diaspora, also between those who view both the Shah and the country’s current religious leaders as authoritarian and those who look back on the Shah with fondness.

“Now, before I attend a meeting, I look up which organization is hosting it,” Amir said. “If there are people who support the Shah, I don’t want to be around them.”

A man holds a portrait of Reza Pahlavi as others wave Iranian flags during a crowded protest
Signs in support of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his son appear outside the Iranian consulate during an October protest in London (File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Bitter divisions

If signs depicting the late Shah or his son Reza Pahlavi were hard for Amir to digest, the presence of another figure at a recent U.S. rally appalled him: Parviz Sabeti, a former senior SAVAK official.

Sabeti attended the February 11 rally and photos from that day sparked a firestorm of controversy, with some claiming his presence undermined calls for a democratic Iran.

“I thought this was incredible,” said Amir, who saw the photos circulating on social media. “When I saw him (Sabeti) it was like he was mocking us. The beatings, the torture, it all came back. It was like being in prison again.”

Support for the Shah is difficult to quantify, and the Iranian-American community has a wide variety of views on the political situation in Iran.

a petition the call for the younger Pahlavi to lead the protest movement has garnered more than 450,000 signatures on the Change.org website.

In conversation with the news center Politics at the Munich security conference in February, Pahlavi said he should not be held responsible for his father’s actions. “People understand how crucial my role can be in a transition,” he said.

A woman poses with an Iranian flag and a portrait of Reza Pahlavi, which reads "king of Iran"
A supporter of Reza Pahlavi, a son of the late Shah of Iran, protests in Munich, Germany, on February 17 (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

But for people like Amir, the pressure to choose between supporters of the Shah and the current Islamic Republic is the wrong choice.

“My hope for Iran is that people can read what they want, say what they want. The Iranian people do not want to live under a dictator, be it the Shah or the current government,” he said. “I want freedom for the Iranian people, that’s all.”

Schisms over how the US should deal with the current administration have also been a source of contention and sometimes hostility.

Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-born analyst and reporter living in exile in the United States, said such debates have become increasingly fraught since the protests began, with some seeing any involvement with the Iranian government as a form of accommodation.

“These are complex issues and there is a lot of disagreement within the diaspora,” Mortazavi told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call. “But there has been an attempt by more hardcore anti-regime activists to defame anyone critical of, say, the impact of US sanctions or for diplomacy as a supporter of the regime.”

Mortazavi said she and her family have been subject to a spate of rape and death threats over what critics characterize as her “advocacy” for the government, an accusation she strongly denies.

“People feel frustrated because they have no control over the oppressive forces in Iran,” she said, “so they go after scapegoats.”

Mortazavi said some of the most ferocious online activity is driven by what appear to be bot accounts. She believes the presence of these automated accounts indicates the involvement of states interested in a more aggressive approach to Iran.

Since the administration of former US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of a deal that prohibited Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, United Nations has expressed concern that Iran is getting closer to obtaining the materials needed to build one.

However, Iran has long denied that it plans to build a nuclear weapon.

A protester wears a headdress made from a sheet of paper denouncing Iran's IRGC "terrorists"
Protesters in Brussels, Belgium participate in a rally on February 20, 2023 in support of anti-government protests in Iran (File: Johanna Geron/Reuters)

Even within Iran, the future of the current protest movement remains an open question. Many critics view the demonstrations as the most robust challenge to the current government in years. But harsh crackdowns have killed hundreds of protesters, according to human rights groups based abroad, and Iranian security forces have been accused of torture and coerced confessions.

It is a scenario that is familiar to Amir.

“I left Iran in 1981 because I knew what kind of people they were. They were the same as the Shah,” he said, referring to the Muslim leaders who seized power after the Shah’s ousting in 1979. “The people of Iran did not want a dictatorship.”