The arrest and brutal death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, in police custody last September in Iran sparked a wave of protests across the country. Angered by a repressive authoritarian government, protesters’ calls for Iran to become a secular democracy have since captured global attention.

Shirin Ebadi, left, and Abbas Milani, right, attend the “Key Challenges and Pathways to Transition” event on Sunday, March 26, 2023, at the Stanford Faculty Club. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

Abbas Milani, director of the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, said the demonstrations have mobilized citizens and the Iranian diaspora like never before.

“The events that unfolded over the last six months woke up the world to the reality that there’s something serious going on in Iran,” Milani said.

On Saturday, March 25, and Sunday, March 26, Stanford hosted the conference Dialogues on Iran’s Transition to Secular Democracy. It convened Iranian leaders and activists, as well as policy experts and researchers at Stanford to deliberate the challenges, strategies, and pathways for Iran to become a democratic society.

The conference was held at the Stanford Faculty Club and welcomed in-person and virtual attendees who gave presentations and participated in workshops, mostly conducted in Persian. It was co-organized by the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies; Gozar, an independent expert collective; and KAI, a prominent group of Silicon Valley leaders interested in Iran.

Challenges and pathways

The conference kicked off Saturday morning with a discussion on the “Woman, Life, Freedom” slogan and movement borne out of Amini’s death and long-standing gender inequality in Iran. Moderated by scholar and politician Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, PhD, it covered the role that women and other minorities play in pushing for democracy and regime change in Iran.

From left, activists Hamed Esmailion, Masih Alinejad, and Nazanin Bonyadi participate remotely in a panel titled “Key Challenges and Pathways to Transition” on Sunday, March 26, 2023, at the Stanford Faculty Club. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

Other panels addressed such topics as the peaceful transfer of political power, economic risks, human rights, the role of technology, and key legal issues surrounding a transition to a democratic government in Iran. In the evening, attendees participated in roundtable discussions about amnesty and overcoming misinformation, among other issues.

On Sunday, Milani moderated “Key Challenges and Pathways to Transition.” The event – conducted in Persian – convened prominent exiled Iranians: lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, actress and activist Nazanin Bonyadi, and activist and author Hamed Esmailion. Each was involved in the creation of the Mahsa Charter, a set of proposals for establishing a free and democratic Iran designed to unite Iran’s pro-democracy opposition.

“We need a framework to cooperate … and help our country [because] our differences of opinion have let this regime rule over us for 40 years,” Ebadi said. “It’s time to move beyond that.”

The panelists said the document incorporates many perspectives and is a “starting point” for a path forward. They also encouraged revisions.

“This is not meant to be the end all be all,” Esmailion said. “We are open to criticism.”

The demonstrations of the last six months have convened tens of thousands of protesters and resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries by Iran’s military. When asked what the Iranian diaspora can do to support those on the ground, Alinejad cited correcting misinformation from Iran’s government, rallying support from other nations, and advocating for Iranians on the global stage.

“We are the continuation of the voices from inside Iran,” she said.

Panelists noted that many global dictators are united in their support for one another. Iran’s government, for example, has allied with Russia and supplied ammunition to Vladimir Putin’s army in Ukraine. Alinejad said that democracy-seekers should also band together.

“We need to find our own allies … and unite with governments who are on our side,” she said.

Milani noted that successful transitions to democracy often unite protesters with some parts of an authoritarian regime, by way of defectors or through negotiations. But Ebadi said that Iran’s opposition does not yet have the power to be diplomatic and will need more support from risk-averse Iranians who have yet to fully support the democratic cause.

“We can only negotiate when we are equals or we have the better hand,” she said.

Stanford perspectives

Sunday’s program included a pre-recorded discussion with Milani; Larry Diamond, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow of Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; and Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation. All three have worked together on The Iran Democracy Project within the Hoover Institution to better understand Iran’s possible transition to democracy.

Diamond shared what he believes to be the necessary conditions for success. “There has to be some element of decay and division in the regime and some degree of strategy, organization, unity, and mobilization in the opposition, in order for the situation to be right for a democratic transition,” he said.

Given Iran’s rich oil reserves, he believes the regime is unlikely to disintegrate for lack of resources. The democratic opposition will therefore need greater support from allies as well as international pressure on the regime for a transition to occur.

Integrating diasporas with the people on the ground is often challenging, due to physical distance or differing political or cultural views, among other reasons. McFaul said that transitioning to democracy requires mass cooperation until a regime is replaced.

“In the fight against [an] autocratic regime, unity matters a lot,” he said.

Milani noted that Iran’s transition to democracy could have broad implications if successful.

“If you look at the last 120 years of history of the Middle East, what happens in Iran does not stay in Iran. It spreads,” he said, calling Iran a bellwether in the region.

“If we get Iran to become democratic, I think the Middle East will be a different place.”

Diamond is also a professor, by courtesy, of sociology and of political science and international studies. McFaul is also the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies, professor of political science in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.