For the last six years, one regime after another in the Arab world has been shaken by popular protest and mass disaffection. Yet the wind of change that has swept through this benighted region has dashed the hopes of many as secular autocracies have been replaced with Islamist reactionaries. Now the seeds of a ‘Persian Spring’ have appeared, carrying the hopes of millions of Iranians on its shoulders.
The demonstrations of the last week have seen thousands of protesters march and demonstrate in Iranian cities, some in key government strongholds. Already the regime has responded with brute force and there are reports of 22 deaths, a figure that will no doubt rise in the coming days. Hundreds more have been arrested and some internet sites have been blocked. This somewhat predictable crackdown is all the more reason for the international community to stand in solidarity with ordinary Iranians and their aspiration for freedom.
Certainly, one of the biggest policy errors would be to view what is happening as a purely economic issue. It is true that Iranians face sustained hardship right now, something worsened by a recent decision to raise food prices. In addition, youth unemployment remains stubbornly high at around 40% and there is palpable anger and resentment at the cost of the war in Syria.
But demonstrators are not just demanding a better standard of living or fairer prices. They are also calling for the end of the clerical dictatorship that has ruled them since 1979. In other words, what many seek is regime change.
That is why many young Iranians can be heard chanting “We don’t want an Islamic Republic” and “Death to Rouhani.” Others have been heard shouting “Death to the dictator” and have torn up posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, an act of deep symbolic significance. Elsewhere, the regime’s obsessive focus on the Palestinians has come under fire with people chanting “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran.” What appears significant is how these protests have spread so rapidly, fuelled by various forms of social media that the authorities are now so desperate to shut down.
But if the courage of young Iranians is beyond doubt, the same cannot be said for the political leadership of the West. European leaders are conspicuous by their silence, seemingly dedicated to their improved relationship with the Islamic Republic following the flawed nuclear accord in 2015. They seem more concerned with ‘stability’ in the region than standing for the rights of a beleaguered population. By contrast, it is a maverick American President, a man reviled by much of the liberal establishment, who appears to stand alone in supporting the Iranian struggle.
President Trump wrote in one of his tweets: ‘Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching.’ Clearly, a tweet is not a foreign policy but the recent mood music from Washington suggests a genuine willingness to confront the ayatollah regime and all it stands for.
America on its own cannot bring about regime change: only the Iranian people can do that. But the West can stand in solidarity with their struggle, using soft power to demonstrate the legitimacy of their cause. Its leaders can speak out against the tyranny of the Ayatollah regime, its gross abuses of human rights, its denial of the rights of women and religious minorities, its virulent homophobia and its Holocaust denying antisemitism.
They can denounce a regime that arms and finances Islamist movements across the Middle East, including in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and which has worsened the bloody carnage in Syria. They can condemn the ayatollahs who have chosen to export terror around the world and who have carried out attacks claiming hundreds of lives over the last four decades. They can also endorse opposition groups who are demanding a pluralistic, democratic alternative to the ayatollahs.
In short, there is a clear choice for the West: appease Tehran’s clerical dictatorship or demand freedom, democracy and dignity for the Iranian people.