Writing is on the wall for Iran’s regime
Iran’s protests have reached the level of a simmering revolution with hundreds dead, thousands in jail and tens of millions mistrusting their government.
The Iranian regime is blinkered by a culture that brooks no argument and ignores reality. It appearsparalysed for initiatives and may be taking itself on a path toward its own destruction.
The trigger to this current wave of protests was the September killing in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for wearing her hijab incorrectly. Anger, rallies and wildcat strikes spread through the country, resulting in the security forces using gunfire and beatings to try to keep control.
Iran is familiar with protests, not least the groundswell that overthrew the Shah’s corruption in 1979 and brought in the current religion-based, anti-American regime.
But that was a long time ago. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlav’scruelty and incompetence has blurred into history and with it has extinguished whatever beacon an Islamic-led Utopia was meant to have achieved.
Young Iranians like to ride motorbikes, wear natty hairstyles, surf the Internet, gossip and plan for a brighter future. Getting hauled in by the ‘morality police’ does not match that lifestyle.
American-Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad reports that in 2014 alone, according to government figures, 3.6 million women were warned, fined or arrested for wearing ‘inappropriate dress’.
Such a controlling relationship between a government and its citizens is unsustainable in the long term,which is why statements against the regime now rangefrom the national football team at the World Cup in Qatar to actors, film directors, academics and scientists.
The government is faced with an unpalatable truth: that Iranians are no longer beholden to its Islamic vision and are willing to suffer and die to end it.
According to recent research by the Tony Blair Institute, Iranian society is also becoming more secular. Even in traditionally conservative rural areas, only 33 per cent now pray five times a day. In towns and cities, the number is down to 26 per cent.
Among Iranian women, 74 per cent opposes the compulsory wearing of the hijab, together with 72 per cent of men. Of those, 84 per cent want regime change.
Writing in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs, Masih Alinejad argued that the United States must advocate openly for the protestors, saying, ‘It is time to encourage the Iranian people to fulfill their democratic aspirations.’
And here lies the most dangerous challenge. Democratic aspirations might be real, but democratic institutions do not grow on trees, and take decades to build.
The tone of Western democracies will be critical.
In last month’s Democracy Forumdebate on Iran, most panellists called for the West to stand back and let Iranians sort out their problems themselves.
But parliamentarian and Democracy Forum chair, Barry Gardiner, explained thatthis was a difficult position for politicians to maintain. Voters want to see their elected representatives taking action against a repressive regime.
Supported by the West, the morally-just voices of the protestors will growlouder,while the regime, bereft of ideas, will grow more fearful and violent.
Iranian activists might have a shared beacon, but there is no shared management structure that could even begin to realise their goals. As we have seen elsewhere in the region, the risk of fragmentation and internecine violence is high.
Responsibility, therefore, lies with Iran’s government to ensure that it begins reforming in such a way that a critical mass of its citizens will, at the very least, give it the benefit of the doubt.
Recent case studies of authoritarianism, such as China, Russia and Syria, do not show Iran a way through. But they do offer lessons.
Syria battened up, chose civil war and ruined the country.
Struggling for legitimacy, Russia waged war for territory it does not need and has become a global pariah.
With an underperforming economy and increased repression, China is teetering. But the Chinese Communist Party does understand the pact it has with its citizens.
In June 1989, it violently brought an end to protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. But after that, it opened up the economy to give Chinese citizens the wealth and social mobility they have enjoyed in recent decades.
It may not be too late for Iran.
If the regime pulls back and thinks out of the box, if the protestors do not become too angry and unforgiving, and if the West restrains its rhetoric, there is a chance that Iranians can work this conundrum out for themselves, without wrecking the country that both sides claim to be saving.