The world must act — and act now — to stop the crackdown in Tehran
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh/Arab News/January 05/2018
On Tuesday, with Iran’s nationwide unrest entering its seventh day, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei weighed in for the first time. Predictably, he blamed “enemies” of the Islamic Republic for instigating and directing activities in upward of 60 cities. Khamenei is correct in the sense that the vast majority of Iranians are hostile to his theocratic regime. Unlike the Green Movement in 2009, the past week’s demonstrations started with disenfranchized peoples outside Tehran, including those in rural towns traditionally considered to be conservative strongholds. This confirms that regime change is the popular demand of the Iranian people as a whole, not just of the intellectual elites who enjoy the most contact with social networks. As such, in the words of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Khamenei’s claim of foreign manipulation is “complete nonsense.” She characterized the spontaneous and geographically expansive demonstrations as “the precise picture of a long-oppressed people rising up against their dictators.” Haley’s remarks initiated the push for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC). By that time, Khamenei had stepped forward with his predictable effort to discredit the popular slogans that included bold calls for his resignation. The regime’s response had already resulted in more than 20 deaths and hundreds of arrests.
The Trump administration is rightly concerned about the probable escalation of the crackdown, especially after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced its deployment to three provinces that had been particular hotbeds of activity. The IRGC was instrumental in the violent suppression of the Green Movement. Its domestic power has grown since, and its influence over Iran’s judiciary has allowed the IRGC to predetermine the outcomes of cases it initiates against political activists. Tehran’s Revolutionary Court has already declared that death penalties could await those arrested. The head of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, has termed the uprising “the new sedition,” thus connecting it to the “sedition” of 2009 and, by extension, to its violent fate, with dozens killed and some participants still in prison nearly a decade later.
The US has a responsibility to outline a policy that will actually support the autonomous calls for freedom and democracy, including providing protesters with access to the Internet and other means of communication.
But it is important to note that the Green Movement suffered that fate against a backdrop of international silence. Fortunately, the Trump administration has made several statements supporting the Iranian people, without lending credence to the ridiculous claims about the demonstrations’ foreign origins. Indeed, far from intervening directly, the White House has so far offered little to the protesters other than expressions of moral support. This is certainly important as it helps keep global attention focused on Tehran’s response, potentially forestalling severe crackdowns that might otherwise be condemned only after the fact. But the US also has a responsibility to outline a policy that will actually support the autonomous calls for freedom and democracy, including providing protesters with access to the Internet and other means of communication. And it must do so quickly. A UNSC meeting would represent an opportunity to showcase such a policy, which should include at a minimum serious, multinational efforts to deny Tehran the tools to halt the flow of information within the country or out of it. Western governments must do everything in their power to counter Tehran’s attempts to control the narrative, such the IRGC’s claim that only 15,000 people have participated nationwide. If foreign broadcasts do not vigorously address such fabrications, this is the only narrative that the people will hear. In the past week, the Iranian people and opposition have demonstrated that information is a powerful weapon, using smartphones to organize protests that nobody had seen coming. The US and its allies could provide tremendous support to the Iranian people simply by helping to ensure that these resources remain available to them.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business.
Is the Arab spring coming to Iran?
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim/Al Arabiya/January 05/18
This is not how things were supposed to go in Iran. Iranians went to the polls in 2013 and elected Hassan Rouhani to serve as President of the Islamic Republic filled with hope after the harsh and belligerent tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani was billed as a moderate who would relax the excesses of the religious hardliners, and would mend his country’s relations to the rest of the world – especially the West. Doing so would be followed by sanction relief and economic boom, which would lift the country out of its long economic stagnation. And it was not all just empty rhetoric. Just two years later, the Iran nuclear deal with the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany came into force, and economic sanctions have been subsequently eased, as Iran has stuck to its side of the bargain. But one thing of what was supposed to happen did not. The Iranian people did not see the economic boom they were expecting. In fact, the very opposite has happened: over the past 10 years, average Iranians have become 15 percent poorer, as a consequence of rising inflation and stagnating wages. Rather than delivering the proceeds of peace to the people, Iran’s political leaders have instead decided to reinvest them in their regional wars to expand their sphere of influence.
And the trend has in fact accelerated over the past year – exactly when Iranians would have expected that things would start to turn around. So what happened to the windfall they were expecting? Iran did in fact reap the reward of sanctions relief. And to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. It’s just that the windfall was not put back into the local economy by the Iranian leadership. Rather than delivering the proceeds of peace to the people, Iran’s political leaders have instead decided to reinvest them in their regional wars to expand their sphere of influence. Iran pays the salaries of hundreds of thousands of fighters on the side of Bashar al-Assad in Syria alone, but has paid militant proxies also in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, at the very least. In Syria alone, it is estimated that Iran is spending as much as $15-20 billion a year, including covering a substantial share of Hezbollah’s costs. The amount it spends on all the other proxies and the conflicts they sustain is harder to quantify, but it would not be an insignificant amount extra. To put this into context, the final yearly expense probably comes to somewhere in the region of 4-5 percent of the country’s $438 billion GDP. In other words, every year, the country’s leaders take 4-5 percent out of the country’s economy and spend it on sustaining or escalating conflicts throughout the Middle East.
This is why Iranians are protesting in the streets. And at this point, whether Hassan Rouhani supports Iran’s military expenditure abroad, or whether these expenses are imposed on him by the all-powerful clerics and Revolutionary Guards after he has done all the hard work of mending relations with the West is a moot point. One of two things is true: either Rouhani supports Iran’s proxy wars, and in having done so he has betrayed the hopes of the Iranian people who have swept him to power on a wave of optimism; or he does not support these efforts but is powerless to redefine his country’s economic and security priorities. Whichever is true, it is clear that the Iranian people have lost patience with their leaders. Once, Hassan Rouhani was seen as the champion of a different future for Iran, and their faith in him continued served to mollify rebellion against the Islamic Republic. But that faith has been squandered, and now the people are rising up against the entire political edifice built by the clerics. It remains to be seen whether the leadership can impose order like they did during the protests in 2009, or whether something like the Arab spring is coming to Iran. But either way, it is doubtful that the clerics and their regime will ever again be able to regain the trust of their people.