If there is one lesson the world should have learned from Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009 and the so-called Arab Spring that followed, it is this: the worst regimes stay. Rulers who are only averagely appalling (Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak) can be toppled by uprisings. Those who are willing to kill every one of their countrymen stay. So it is that after almost half a million dead we enter 2018 with Bashar al-Assad still President of Syria and with Iran’s mullahs approaching the 40th anniversary of their seizure of power in 1979.
Last week this lesson got a chance to be learned again when protests broke out on streets across Iran, and the world wondered which date this one might echo. A revolution finally to counter 1979? Or just another replay of the brutally suppressed protests of 2009?
The origins and cause of these latest protests are already contested. The regime claims foreign interference. Others warn of clerics even more hardline than the regime. But most early reports indicate that protesters began by highlighting the country’s living standards. Specifically, they complained about the government’s use of its recent economic bonus (from the lifting of sanctions) not to help the Iranian people, but to pursue wider regional ambitions. Iranian forces are currently fighting in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This from a power whose defenders still claim is not expansionist.
Iran is experiencing low growth, high unemployment and inflation (10 per cent) and the increasing unaffordability of necessities such as eggs and milk. But the most striking factor is how swiftly the protests became not just critical of the government, but openly anti-regime. Outside the gates of Tehran University a crowd chanted slogans against the nation’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, including ‘Death to the dictator’. The nationwide demonstrations, which have not been led by any single demographic, class, or group, have included cries of ‘Leave Gaza, leave Lebanon, my life (only) for Iran’. Chants of ‘Death to Hezbollah’ (Iran’s terrorist proxy currently fighting in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria) have also been heard from Mashhad to Kermanshah. After several days, Ayatollah Khamenei tried to dampen this motif by appealing (unsuitably for a cleric who claims to be devoted solely to Allah and the Imam) to the patriotism of all Iranians. The regime may be worrying. Whereas 2009’s protests centred on Tehran, these are rural as well as urban, and remarkably widespread.
Yet anyone who expects these demonstrations to lead to swift change in the nature of the Iranian government remembers no history. Shortly after the latest protests began, the country’s security forces, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, were seen photographing the events. In Iran, a regime camera is as deadly as a sniper’s sights. Only more delayed. As in 2009, the photographs will be used by the police to arrest demonstrators and also family members unconnected with the protests. This will be followed by the torture and rape of men and women in prison by the theocratic regime’s frontmen. As after the Green Revolution, there will in due course be show trials, forced recantations and executions. This is how a police state with four decades of experience goes about its business. In 1979, the behaviour of the Shah’s dreaded Savak secret police was one of the spurs for revolution. The Ayatollahs have superseded the Savak, fine-tuned their brutality and learned from their mistakes.
Anyone in doubt about the capacity of the Supreme Leader to hang on to power need only watch the footage of crowds in the city of Rasht advancing down the street on one of the first nights of protest. You can see the exact moment when the regime’s Revolutionary Guard starts attacking the protesters. The crowd that is marching one way down the street suddenly finds an organised army running towards them. These are trained killers being unleashed on angry but peaceful civilians. Six hundred people have already been arrested and dozens already killed. The civilians don’t stand a chance.
Unless, that is, the outside world takes any interest in their plight. In the early hours of the demonstrations, the US President took to Twitter to warn the Iranian authorities that ‘The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!’ But such is the obsession with Donald Trump and the parochialism of all our politics that Trump’s critics immediately took to the media to condemn his condemnation of human rights abuses. Again on Twitter, the most powerful man on the planet — determined not to replay the actions of his predecessor in office, who was highly reluctant to speak out during the crushing of the Green Revolution — warned that ‘The world is watching.’ He may be right. But the world may watch in silence.
Some international caution is justified. People have their reasons. Our own Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has expressed ‘concern’ over events, but has been careful not to go further. Fresh back from a visit to Tehran, the Foreign Secretary has been working to obtain the release of the British–Iranian dual citizen, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for the last 18 months. Thanks to a campaign by Labour MPs, the issue of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release has been turned into an issue of the Foreign Secretary’s personal competence (at times as though it is Boris Johnson, and not the mullahs, who imprisoned the woman). Johnson’s Iranian counterparts know that he has a lot riding on his efforts to release her and have used this advantage well. So a campaign for one woman’s freedom has hindered a Foreign Secretary from campaigning for a nation’s freedom.
Other silences have been less defensible. The leader of the opposition is not normally silent when there is an opportunity to talk about unfairness or injustice. Yet after days of protests in Iran, Jeremy Corbyn said nothing.
One reason may be that the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition was until recently in the pay of the Iranian regime. For presenting programmes on its propaganda wing, Press TV (before becoming Labour party leader), Corbyn received up to £20,000. Damningly — or it would be damning if more people cared — he appeared on Press TV even after the channel lost its broadcasting licence. It lost that licence not because of its always clear political support for a sectarian, gay-hanging, women-oppressing dictatorship. It lost it because during the channel’s campaign to delegitimise the 2009 protests, Press TV broadcast a forced confession from a journalist who had been abducted by the regime and was being held in prison. Ofcom thought this crossed a line. Jeremy Corbyn did not and was happy to continue to take his apple-juice money from Tehran.
Elsewhere the silence indicates the dream-puncturing of an entire political class. In 2015 the UN security council agreed a deal with Iran to limit elements of its nuclear programme for a period. Iran’s incentives included a freeing up of trade and a delivery of billions of dollars in cash. For their part, companies and governments across Europe hoped to get their own cash bonanzas in the wake of that deal. Such deals always compromise the people who make them. One of the chief defenders of the 2015 deal, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has spent recent days being studiously silent on the uprisings in Iran. When President Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital she couldn’t tweet enough condemnations of his action. Yet five days into the protests in Iran, she hadn’t even said that she is watching events closely. Europe’s leading foreign affairs ideologue needs Iran’s governing status quo to stay in place so that nothing about her own deal, future cash prize or putative Nobel award is in any way disturbed.
Even if the regime is one day toppled — far-off though that day looks at the moment — there are enough rival factions within Iran to make the result as unpredictable as it was for many people in 1979. Back then the New York Times published a memorable piece by Richard Falk (formerly of the UN, now professor emeritus at Princeton University) assuring readers that the depiction of Ayatollah Khomeini ‘as fanatical… and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false.’ He later added that ‘Khomeini’s Islamic republic can be expected to have a doctrine of social justice at its core; from all indications it will be flexible in interpreting the Koran.’ Charitably we might say that Iranian politics has long been hard to read. The classified advice of the CIA in August 1978 was that ‘Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.’
Many people will dream their own dreams about the latest events in Iran, as experts and amateurs did in 1979. But for some people in the West — notably the Iranian regime’s paid and unpaid defenders — the mission right now will be to defend and otherwise cover for the regime. They will point out that the House of Saud isn’t at all nice: as though that is contested, or presently relevant.
If the Iranian people want freedom from the mullahs and can seize it for themselves, then we should wish them solidarity and luck. They will need it — for every succeeding stage, as well as this one. They are facing a regime that is not just the region’s chief destabiliser and terror sponsor, but a brutal theocracy. And that regime will certainly remain in power so long as the rest of the world remains as confused, compromised, sympathetic and supine as it has been in recent days and years.