LET IRAN DEBATE ITS FUTURE FREELY
Many countries which have experienced violent regime change respond by developing powerful systems to suppress protest. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard stands firm against any revolutionary threat to its commander, the nation’s unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It is he – not the elected president – who has the final say on all key decisions relating to the law, crime, economics and the media.
It is almost four decades since Iran rose in revolution against the authoritarian rule of the Shah, leading to the establishment of an Islamic republic which maintains the vestiges of democracy but where the real power lies with a theocratic elite. Since its establishment, the state has often been embroiled in wars and proxy wars and has sought – unsuccessfully – to arm itself with nuclear weapons. President Trump’s statement from the White House last month said: ‘The Iranian regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It enables Hezbollah, Hamas, and many other terrorists to sow chaos and kill innocent people. It has funded, armed, and trained more than 100,000 militants to spread destruction across the Middle East.’
Opposition from within Iran is usually short-lived but in the past few months, flickering images of discontent shot on mobile phones have leaked out. Some demonstrators are shown chanting ‘We don’t want an Islamic Republic’ and ‘Death to the dictator’. In another scene, women throw off their hijabs, defying the official dress code.
Inevitably, observers wondered if the protests would escalate and perhaps even send forth a wave to challenge the government, similar to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. However, President Hassan Rouhani quickly sought to play down issue, saying, ‘This is nothing. Criticism and protest are an opportunity, not a threat.’
He also vowed to act against ‘rioters and lawbreakers’ and there were reports that around 20 people were killed in clashes with the authorities. By early January, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Muhammad Ali Jafari, announced ‘the end of the current revolt’.
The demonstrators were neither well organised nor centrally led. Nor did they have a clear political goal in mind. Instead, their slogans reflected grievances over high unemployment and food prices, corruption and inequality.
The government should respond by prioritising economic reform. Shortly before the protests, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a fairly optimistic report which points to economic growth in Iran of around three and a half percent for 2017/2018. It recommends diversifying the economy away from the oil sector. It also calls for more career opportunities for women.
Yet Iran’s leaders often stifle reform by blaming economic challenges on outsiders, especially the United States. In a bid to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the US initiated sanctions which have cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars in lost oil revenue. The Obama administration agreed to ease the sanctions in 2015 after Iran signalled it would dismantle its weapons programme but President Trump, sceptical of the promise, has been threatening to restore the tariffs.
This makes it easy for President Rouhani to portray President Trump as a capricious adversary and an opponent of Iran’s development. But if Mr Rouhani truly sees the protests as an ‘opportunity’, he should make good on his own election promises of reform, including those of greater gender equality and a freer press. Unfortunately, there are signs that human rights in Iran have eroded during his tenure and the media is moving more tightly under government control through the arrest, intimidation and harassment of journalists.
President Rouhani’s options are limited by the constraints upon his power. He remains answerable to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds the apparatus of control, including the security services who create an atmosphere of fear and distrust.
A first step towards change would be to free up the press, thus allowing citizens to engage in an open debate about the kind of government they want and how they perceive Iran’s role in the world. Such a debate is unlikely to be helped by taunts from the White House – indeed, these are a handy distraction for those who would rather not have the conversation. Yet the protests on the streets, though short lived, reveal that some brave Iranians maintain a vivid hope of a future without fear.