The most recent protests in Iran are the surest sign yet that a majority of Iranians want regime change, argues Struan Stevenson. But the international community must do more to alienate the regime in Tehran, and support the push for progressive change in the country.
Susan B. Anthony, the famous American social reformer and women’s rights activist said: “I distrust people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Her quotation could accurately describe the mullahs who rule Iran. Their policy of velayat-e faqih, or absolute clerical rule, allows them to justify every horror, every medieval torture, every public execution, every act of terror, as the ‘will of God.’ For 39 years, since the Iranian revolution handed power to Ayatollah Khomeini, the clerical regime has ruled Iran with an iron fist, suppressing freedom and justice, abusing human rights and women’s rights, and exporting terror.
On 28 December last year, Iran’s restless citizens finally signalled that they’d had enough. The uprising, which began in the holy city of Mashhad, was initially sparked by protests against spiralling living costs, rising unemployment and increasing poverty. It quickly escalated into an angry confrontation with the government, spreading like wildfire to the capital Tehran and to 142 other cities across the country. Millions of Iranians took to the streets chanting Death to Khamenei’, ‘Death to the dictator’, ‘Death to Rouhani’, ‘Mullahs be ashamed and leave Iran’, and ‘I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon’.
The last of these slogans is a reference to the anger against the regime’s repeated meddling in foreign wars. Indeed, it was this deep-seated fury at the billions of dollars being squandered on proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon that finally forced a restive population onto the streets. The nationwide protests are still going on.
A DARK RECORD
Iran is the most repressive country in the Middle East. It executes more people, per capita, than any other country in the world. 90 percent of all executions throughout the Middle East take place in Iran, often in public. The regime tightly controls the media and education. It is a misogynistic, male-dominated society, with vast conscript forces that serve as a further indoctrination and control mechanism. Spending on security is estimated to be around $30 billion per annum.
Iran’s military forces now total 523,000. This includes 125,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the regime’s Gestapo, whose hard-line commanders answer directly to Ali Khamenei – the Supreme Leader – and not to the civil government. These forces conscript over 100,000 young men every year for at least 21 months of service.
Iran is the most repressive country in the Middle East. It executes more people, per capita, than any other country in the world. 90 percent of all executions throughout the Middle East take place in Iran, often in public.
More than half of Iran’s population of 80 million is under 30. Around a quarter of young people are jobless; this figure is higher in some harder-hit regions. Iran is one of the most pro-Western countries in the Middle East. But it is ruled by a clique of elderly, bearded, deeply corrupt mullahs, who have drained the country’s rich oil resources to featherbed their own lavish lifestyles, and to fund their policy of aggressive revolutionary expansionism.
It was rage against this corrupt and repressive theocratic dictatorship that brought the Iranian population onto the streets in its millions over the past 7 weeks. In this respect, the protests were markedly different from the crisis in 2009. Then, the cause was disillusion and disbelief in the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with a surge of support for the ‘so-called’ Green movement and its leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, one of the defeated candidates.
The western media, as usual, painted Mousavi as a moderate and a reformer, ignoring the fact that he held the position of Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989, during which time he oversaw the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988, in one of the worst atrocities since the Second World War. This act is currently being investigated as a crime against humanity by the United Nations.
A DEMAND FOR RADICAL CHANGE
The 2009 uprising was the manifestation of a rift between the different political factions in Iran at that time. The protests involved mainly middle-class people, backed by university students. In stark contrast, the most recent mass uprising was a public rejection of the entire system: a demand for radical change; for freedom; justice; an end to corruption; and an end to Iran’s expensive proxy wars. It involved not only the middle-classes, but also the underprivileged, workers, students, women, and young people. Nearly all of Iranian society took to the streets. Not a single shop or business was attacked. Public ire was directed against government buildings and the security forces.
By explicitly targeting the Supreme Leader and President Hassan Rouhani, the angry, mainly young protesters were demanding the overthrow of the entire clerical regime. This was in no way a demand for hard-liners to be replaced with moderates, a myth that still beguiles many western governments, who think there is room for gradual change. The chants uttered at protests – “Hard-liners, reformers, the game is over,” “Death to Hezbollah”, and “Leave Syria, think about us instead” – clearly demonstrated the people’s opposition to the fascist clerical government’s belligerent regional meddling and its demand for regime change.
In blind panic, the regime severed connections with Instagram and Telegram, in an effort to stop the protesters using social media to spread their message of dissent.
Of course, the mullahs reacted to the crisis in time-honoured fashion: they sent in the regime’s Gestapo, the IRGC, who gunned down dozens in the streets and arrested over 8,000 protesters, ten of whom have already been tortured to death in prison. In blind panic, the regime severed connections with Instagram and Telegram, in an effort to stop the protesters using social media to spread their message of dissent. But the brutal crackdown has only served to deepen public hatred of the regime and harden resolve for its ultimate overthrow.
I do not see any way in which the current Iranian regime can survive. Millions of Iranians now live in poverty. There is rising inflation and massive unemployment, particularly amongst the young. Yet Tehran continues to pour billions into propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the brutal Shi’ia militias in Iraq, the ruthless Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranian people are no longer prepared to stand aside as the mullahs plunder their national wealth and turn Iran into a pariah state. The latest uprising has revealed the emergence of a courageous new force from within the heart of Iran’s long-suffering cities; a new force, prepared to struggle for their rights and to fight for freedom and equality. This new force has, I believe, the capability of overthrowing the theocratic regime.
In America, both Republicans and Democrats have at long last recognised the Iranian regime as the Godfather of terror. It is time the UK government and the EU did likewise.
And the Iranian people know that they are no longer isolated in their demand for change. In America, both Republicans and Democrats have at long last recognised the Iranian regime as the Godfather of terror. It is time the UK government and the EU did likewise. President Obama’s policy of appeasement towards Iran was a huge mistake. The nuclear deal was absurdly one-sided, giving endless concessions to the Iranian regime. Its leniency made it easy for the mullahs to run a cart and horses through the terms of the agreement with virtual impunity. And the lifting of sanctions simply provided the mullahs with a windfall of additional billions to spend on their military adventures.
Europe’s skulking policy of kow-towing to the mullahs achieved its zenith when Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, attended Hassan Rouhani’s second inauguration as President last August. Most western and international leaders boycotted the ceremony, but Ms Mogherini was nevertheless happy to fly to Tehran to rub shoulders with none other than President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kim Jong-un’s deputy from North Korea. We must make sure that Europe will be on the side of the Iranian people and not on the side of the mullahs. So far, this has not been the case.
Europe’s skulking policy of kow-towing to the mullahs achieved its zenith when Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, attended Hassan Rouhani’s second inauguration as President last August. Most western and international leaders boycotted the ceremony.
Of course, typically, Rouhani has been hailed in the West as a moderate and a reformist, despite the fact that more than 3,500 people, including 80 women, have been executed during the four years he has been in office. 700 people were executed last year alone, including women and teenagers. Indeed, just three days before Ms Mogherini arrived in Tehran, Amnesty international published a 94-page report highlighting the ‘web of oppression’ that pervades Iran, detailing the catastrophic human rights situation in the country.
TARGETING THE PMOI
Now, in the wake of the recent uprising, the mullahs have set their sights on blaming the main democratic opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI). In his speech on 9 January, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “These incidents had been organized. The PMOI had prepared for this months ago and the PMOI’s media outlets had called for it.” So the opposition movement, once dubbed by the mullahs as an insignificant grouplet, has suddenly been catapulted into pole position as the main agitator behind the uprising. According to the AFP news agency, President Rouhani even telephoned Emmanuel Macron on 3 January, pleading with him to take action against the Paris-based PMOI and its leader, Mrs Maryam Rajavi. Macron rejected Rouhani’s request.
The fact that the regime has now openly accused the PMOI of playing a leading role in the uprising has exposed their acknowledgement that indeed there is a democratic opposition, led by Mrs Rajavi; that there is an organised resistance and an alternative to the ruling theocracy. Mrs Rajavi’s 10-point political platform, calling for a secular, parliamentary government, human rights, women’s rights, an end to the death penalty, and an end to the nuclear threat, is something that the majority of Iranians now crave.
Mrs Rajavi’s 10-point political platform, calling for a secular, parliamentary government, human rights, women’s rights, an end to the death penalty, and an end to the nuclear threat, is something that the majority of Iranians now crave.
During the years I was in the European Parliament, I worked closely with this opposition movement. I believe they are a democratic force and the best and only hope for a future free Iran.
As the arrests and violent repression continue, the international community must not remain silent about what is going on in Iran. The United Nations Security Council must adopt punitive measures against the regime. It must hold to account the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, most of whom were supporters of the PMOI. Many of these murderers are still in positions of power in Iran today.
The international community must also demand the release of the thousands of protesters arrested during the recent uprising, and issue strong warnings against any torture or execution of these prisoners. It must demand the restoration of full and unhindered access to the internet for the Iranian public and, importantly, it must express solidarity with the Iranian people in their bid for democratic change.
Perhaps the final difference between the 2009 protests and the recent uprising will be that the latter succeeds in overthrowing the reviled theocracy in Iran. The people of Iran fervently hope so.
Struan Stevenson is President of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA). He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004 -14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East. He is author of the book Self-Sacrifice: Life With the Mojahedin (published by Birlinn) which is available on Amazon.
Feature image: Protests in Tehran, December 2017. Image: Fars News Agency [CC BY 4.0]