|Students attend a protest at Tehran University.|
Watching the anti-government protests in Iran, one cannot help but wonder if by some seeming miracle the protests can succeed in regime change. Realistically, the short term answer may be no, so the question becomes one of what can American policy do to aid the protesters. Launching a war on Iran as Donald Trump and Nikki Haley - who has destroyed many f my initial positive thoughts about her - seem wont to do is likely NOT the answer. One need only look at how Stalin used Hitler's invasion to rally popular support to "defend mother Russia" to know that providing an outside enemy would play right into the regime's hands (not that Der Trumpenführer knows any history or has any connection with the real world that isn't clouded by his narcissism). Plus, despite the understanding of the Trump/GOP base, Iran is not a nation of "camel jockeys" and the nation, if unified by an eternal foe could make the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan look like a cake walk. An op-ed in the New York Times gives some insights likely lost on the White House and those seeking to the ignorant GOP base. Here are excerpts:
In Iran, the obstacles to success are daunting. Whereas most Middle Eastern countries are ruled by secular autocrats focused on repressing primarily Islamist opposition, Iran is an Islamist autocracy focused on repressing secular opposition. This dynamic—unarmed, unorganized, leaderless citizens seeking economic dignity and pluralism, versus a heavily armed, organized, rapacious ruling theocracy that espouses martyrdom—is not a recipe for success.
And yet, against this inauspicious backdrop, Iran’s mushrooming anti-government protests—although so far much smaller in scale than the country’s 2009 uprising—have been unprecedented in their geographic scope and intensity. They began December 28 in Mashhad, a Shiite pilgrimage city often considered a regime stronghold, with protesters chanting slogans like “leave Syria alone, think about us.” They soon spread to Qom, Iran’s holiest city, where protesters expressed nostalgia for Reza Shah, the 20th-century modernizing autocrat who ruthlessly repressed the clergy. They continued in provincial towns, with thousands chanting, “we don’t want an Islamic Republic” in Najafabad, “death to the revolutionary guards” in Rasht, and “death to the dictator” in Khoramabad. They’ve since spread to Tehran, and hundreds have been arrested, the BBC reported, citing Iranian officials.
What triggered these protests is a subject of debate—some evidence suggests they were initially encouraged by hardline forces to embarrass President Hassan Rouhani—but what has fueled them have been the same grievances that power anti-government protests everywhere: rising living costs, endemic corruption, fraud, mismanagement. In Iran, add to that bitter cocktail both political and social repression, all conducted from the moral pedestal of Islamist theocracy.
While these grievances have been festering for years and indeed decades, among the dozens of factors that distinguish today’s protests from 2009 is the smartphone. In 2009—when an estimated 2 million to 3 million Iranians protested silently in Tehran—fewer than 1 million Iranians owned such a device, and few outside Tehran. Today, an astonishing 48 million Iranians are thought to have smartphones, all of them equipped with social media and communication apps.
But while Iranians have a much better understanding how elsewhere is living, the rest of the world has had a less clear idea of how Iranians are living given Tehran’s effective distortion of Western media coverage. Since 2009 and even before, the dogged professional journalists covering Iran—including The Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi, The New York Times’s Nazila Fathi, Newsweek’s Maziar Bahari, Reuters’s Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh, and dozens more—have been intimidated, expelled, and in some cases imprisoned. The few journalists remaining in Iran rightfully worry about their personal safety. Many of the best Iranian writers, scholars, and artists of their generation have been similarly banished from Iran.
The Iranian government has the highest per capita execution rate in the world, treats women as second class citizens, persecutes gays and religious minorities, and stifles free speech. While there is a natural inclination among decent people everywhere to want a peaceful civil rights movement to succeed in Iran, there are ample reasons to believe it will not. The regime’s coercive apparatus—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Bassij milita—are organized, armed, and abundant, and well-practiced in the brutal science of repression. Opponents of the government, in contrast, are unarmed, leaderless, and rudderless. In addition, Iran has at its disposal tens of thousands of Shia militiamen—including Lebanese Hezbollah—it has been cultivating for years and in some cases decades.
In the weeks and months to come, expect the regime to grow ever more repressive. Iran’s security forces thrive when there is insecurity. Some Iranians even fear the IRGC has allowed the protests to fester as a pretext for expanding their authority in the name of national security.
It is only natural that popular agitations against a regime whose official slogan is “Death to America” will elicit strong support from U.S. politicians. The question, as always, is what is the most constructive way for Washington to “support” such protests? . . . . What’s more important than public statements are U.S. policies that can inhibit the regime’s coercive capacity and their ability to black out communications.
One concrete suggestion is to make it clear that companies and countries around the world complicit in Iran’s repressive apparatus—including those providing censorship technology—will face censure from the United States. The United States should also mobilize global partners that do have working relations with Iran—including Europe, Japan, South Korea, and India—to add their voices of concern and condemnation to Tehran’s repression. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been noticeably silent.
Given the opacity of the Iranian system and its inaccessibility to independent investigation, the days and weeks ahead are eminently unpredictable. Khamenei and his IRGC backers appear firmly entrenched from thousands of miles away, but we also know from history that authoritarian stability can be a chimera. In August 1978, the CIA confidently assessed that the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.”
Two-thousand-five-hundred years of Persian civilization and a century-long quest for democracy offer hope about the irrepressible Iranian will for change. But the Islamic Republic’s four-decade history of brutality suggests that change will not come easily, or peacefully, or soon.