Analysis: Why are Iranian monarchists backing Israel over its Gaza war?

Iran’s monarchists have moved closer to Israel, which they see as a key ally in their fight to reinstate the Pahlavis.

Son of Iran's last sha, Iran's exiled crown prince Reza Pahlavi, left, and Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamlielpose for photographers ahead of the opening ceremony of the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
Reza Pahlavi, left, poses with Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel ahead of the opening ceremony of the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem on April 17, 2023 [Tsafrir Abayov/AP Photo]

As millions of people took to the streets to denounce Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, demanding justice and peace, support for Israel emerged from a surprising quarter: Iranian monarchists.

They are supporters of Reza Pahlavi, son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last shah who was toppled by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. At pro-Israel rallies, they have waved the old Iranian flag and chanted praise of Israel and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Their confrontations with pro-Palestinian protesters, whom they accuse of being government proxies, reveal their stark divergence from the mainstream Iranian opinion, which has historically supported the Palestinian cause.

Yet, the current Gaza war evokes complex reactions in Iran, as many Iranians avoid being associated with the government’s unpopular foreign and domestic policies that have caused widespread discontent. Regardless, many Iranian civil society activists and dissidents try to balance criticism of their government with solidarity with Palestinians. The monarchists’ alignment with Israel, therefore, raises questions about their motives and how big a portion of the opposition they represent.

Fractured opposition

The Iranian opposition movement comprises various factions, including republicans and monarchists. However, their ideological differences have hindered their unity and led to bitter conflicts and splits among them.

In December, many Iranians celebrated the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Narges Mohammadi, a prominent women’s rights activist and political prisoner in Iran. Her twins, Kiana and Ali, and their father Taghi Rahmani, received the prize on her behalf and met with the king and queen of Sweden, who praised her courage and work.

But an online campaign against Mohammadi and her family began from several accounts ostensibly belonging to Iranian monarchists.

They cast doubt on Mohammadi’s legitimacy and credibility while insisting that Pahlavi is the only true leader of all Iranians. Their comments included, “Narges Mohammadi is not the representative of Iranians,” and “Our real representative is King Reza Pahlavi.”

They flooded the social media pages of the Swedish royal family and the Nobel Peace Committee with such vitriol that comments had to be disabled.

This online campaign against Mohammadi reached new heights in December, when Yasmine Pahlavi, Reza Pahlavi’s wife, questioned the credibility of Narges Mohammadi on Instagram, wondering how Mohammadi could give an interview with Angelina Jolie from prison, implying that she was not a real political prisoner, but a puppet of the Islamic republican government.

This came as Mohammadi was preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10.

Mohammadi’s husband responded in a series of tweets outlining the perilous process by which political prisoners in Iran communicate with the outside world – a process that, ironically, the monarchist movement also employs in Iran.

The root of this hostility lies in the deep political and ideological rifts between the Iranian monarchists and the Iran-based pro-democracy activists like Mohammadi. The monarchists, who regard Reza Pahlavi as the crown prince and the opposition leader, want the Iranian opposition movement to unite under his leadership. They also support a hardline US approach towards Iran, including increased intervention and harsh sanctions.

Mohammadi, however, has a different background and vision. She was part of Iran’s reformist movement, and supported moderate and reformist candidates like Hassan Rouhani and Mir Hossein Mousavi in past elections, along with most of the Iranian civil society and pro-democracy movement.

She also rejected sweeping sanctions that hurt Iran’s economy, telling the Washington Post in April 2022 that they “weakened Iranians economically more than they weakened the Iranian regime” and “strengthened the Iranian regime and hardline individuals and groups in the country, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This did not benefit democracy in Iran.”

These divergent views on the nature and the future of the Iranian opposition have created a chasm between the monarchists and many other opposition forces, which has been exacerbated by the online attacks against Mohammadi.

Iran Narges Mohammadi family Nobel
Taghi Rahmani, centre, with twins Kiana and Ali after signing the guest book at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, on December 9, 2023 [Frederik Ringnes/NTB/via Reuters]

Against this backdrop, Yasmine Pahlavi’s attack on Narges Mohammadi was one of many examples of her hostility towards people with different political views.

She has a history of making inflammatory statements on social media and expressing a staunch pro-Israel position. She also publicly demonstrated her support for Israel during the Gaza war, attending a pro-Israel rally in Washington, DC in November and waving an Israeli flag.

Indeed, since the outbreak of the Gaza war, the Iranian monarchist movement has shown strong support for Israel online and at pro-Israel rallies in Europe and the United States. Their often-aggressive tactics have concerned many pro-Palestinian activists, with pro-Pahlavi lobbying groups in Washington, DC, such as the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), seeking to intimidate pro-Palestinians activists who have been critical of Iranian-American supporters of Israel, labelling them “supporters of Palestinian terrorist groups”.

Dubious alliances

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled until 1979, had a cordial but complex relationship with Israel, trying to balance it with ties to the Arab world. He cooperated with Israel on energy, security, and regional stability, while also at times voicing support for the Palestinian cause and Islamic and non-aligned movements — though he never fully embraced them and was decisively in the US camp in the Cold War.

He tried to maximise Iran’s strategic options and leverage in the region while working to position it as the leading Gulf state.

His son, Reza Pahlavi, and his supporters, however, have been more and more overly supportive of Israel over the years, seeing it as a critical partner to their cause and ignoring the domestic and regional implications of their stance.

Their pro-Israel stance became much more pronounced and vocal after Reza Pahlavi and his wife visited Israel in April 2023, where they were warmly received and hosted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel.

During their visit, the couple toured the country with Gamliel and the self-proclaimed Iranian crown prince prayed at the Western Wall, avoiding the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

His wife also tried to appropriate the slogan of a popular protest movement in Iran that broke out after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in custody after being arrested for allegedly violating the mandatory hijab law.

Yasmine Pahlavi posted a photo of a female Israeli soldier in East Jerusalem, which is under Israeli occupation, with the words “Women, Life, Freedom!” – angering supporters of the Amini protests who did not want their cause conflated with Israel’s occupation or treatment of Palestinians.

Pahlavi also brought on the visit Amir Etemadi, his official adviser, and Saeed Ghasseminejad, a staffer at the pro-Israel, right-wing Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank in Washington, DC.

Translation: If you don’t have a problem with ‘Death to Russia’, which was chanted in the protests both in the Green Movement and after the Khazar sale, but you have a problem with ‘Death to Palestine’, the reason is that it is still infected with at least one of the two viruses of leftism/Islamism. Both slogans are a sign of the maturity of people who have understood the root of their problems.

Both are controversial men, known for anti-Palestine views and hawkish stances on Iran’s political establishment, calling for sanctions and military attacks. They have even tweeted “Death to Palestine”.

In Israel, Pahlavi also met Mark Dubowitz, head of the FDD, and has since been boosted by pro-Israel media and groups in the US.


Iranian monarchists appear to have little in common with the aspirations of the Iranian people, siding with hawkish and interventionist elements in Israel and the US who seek to overthrow the Iranian government, regardless of the human and regional consequences.

This has isolated them within the Iranian opposition. Many activists inside and outside Iran, who have risked much for their cause and built grassroots movements, have rejected the monarchists.

For example, in November, nine prominent Iranian political prisoners released a letter from behind bars denouncing Israel’s “massacre of the people in Gaza” and calling for solidarity with Palestinians.

Among them were women’s rights activist Anisha Asadollahi; writer and human rights defender Golrokh Iraee; labour activist Reza Shahabi; and journalist Arash Johari.

They criticised those who, under the banner of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, sought “only the backing of Israel and the West and, in this war, only serve them”.

“These people are mainly looking for their share after the destruction of society’s infrastructure due to Western military attacks, as if they have learned nothing from the past two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Women, life, freedom means ‘supporting human dignity, and opposing discrimination and apartheid in any form, and relying on this slogan to confront religious fundamentalism in any form, whether Hamas or Israel,’” the letter continued.

Other Iranian activists have echoed this, such as Reza Khandan, husband of leading dissident lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. He warned in a CNN interview last May that Reza Pahlavi and his supporters pose a danger to the Iranian protest movement, saying they are “opportunistic” and “disconnected from the Iranian people”.

As the Gaza war raged on, Mohammadi joined global calls for a ceasefire. Her husband, also a veteran human rights defender, co-signed a letter denouncing attempts to use the crisis as a pretext for war against Iran along with more than 60 Iranian pro-democracy activists.

Mohamed Reza Pahlavi and his wife in hard hats on a site
Reza Pahlavi, centre, with his wife Yasmine Pahlavi, right front, listen to Brover Semion, left, during a visit to the Sorek Desalination Plant south of Tel Aviv, on April 19, 2023 [Jack Guez/AFP]

The signatories included: Ali Afshari, a former student leader and political activist who was arrested for his involvement in protests; Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former reformist member of parliament who resigned in protest against government crackdowns, and Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent lawyer, writer, and human rights activists who has defended Iranian women’s rights activists.

It warned that war would devastate Iran and harm its people’s struggle for democracy. It explicitly criticised those who used the phrase “cutting off the snake’s head” to justify bombing Iran, as NUFDI, the Washington, DC-based pro-Pahlavi lobby group has done.

My enemy’s enemy is not my friend

The monarchists’ seeming unwillingness to compromise with others in Iran’s diverse and complex society and the different opinions and perspectives among its people, inside and outside the country, has not helped its appeal.

Reza Pahlavi’s movement has faced widespread rejection, even by protesters in Iran who chanted during the Mahsa Amini protests: “Death to the oppressor, be it shah or leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].”

Yasmine Pahlavi, wife of Iranian crown prince whose father was the shah overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution
Yasmine Pahlavi has a history of hostility towards people with different political views. Shown here on April 19, 2023 [Jack Guez//AFP]

Other government critics and activists believe the Iranian monarchists’ support from Israel and its right-wing allies in the US – evident in their close ties with pro-Israel lobbies in Washington and their reliance on media support from Israeli-government-aligned outlets and influencers – is not a benefit, but baggage. It has exposed their lack of legitimacy and credibility, and their disregard for the Iranian people’s democratic aspirations.

As Sadegh Zibakalam, a former Tehran University professor who has been jailed and expelled from academia for criticising the government, observed about the monarchist attacks on Mohammadi in a December 25 Instagram post: “The monarchists’ theories against her and their resentment and spite towards her stem from Narges’s ‘intellectual independence’.

“It is more tragic that those who are powerless today cannot bear to see others and accept rivals. How can they claim to be the champions of ‘rule of law,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘democracy’ if they seize power tomorrow?”

Source: Al Jazeera