Sunday,22 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Sunday,22 April, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Listen to the Iranian people

The nationwide protests in Iran this week, raising mainly social demands, have drawn in tens of thousands of people and represent the boldest challenge to Iran’s leadership since pro-reform unrest in 2009.

While Tehran’s regime has repeatedly claimed to rule in the name of the people since the radical Islamic revolution against the late Shah nearly 40 years ago, it would certainly be wise to listen to the demands repeated in the chants raised in the capital Tehran and at least 50 other cities where demonstrations took place.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution was welcomed by many Arab peoples, seeing it as a revolt against a dictator who suppressed Iranians and sided mostly against Arab interests. However, many Arabs were quickly disappointed by the attitude of the new rulers in Tehran, and their determination to interfere in the region’s affairs under the slogan of “exporting the revolution”.

The Ayatollahs in Tehran claimed that they wanted to spread their model in order to fight against “US imperialism”, Israel and injustice. Yet, it soon became clear that Iran’s rulers were actually seeking to expand over mainly nationalist and sectarian grounds. The goal was not even to export a revolutionary model, but to turn Iran into the centre of control for the entire region, making use of the division and infighting among Iran’s Arab neighbours.

Reviving the old “Persian empire” was certainly a fantasy that Iran’s regime pursued, exactly like the neighbouring president in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who abused democracy to later suppress his own people and claim to be a champion who would restore the old “Ottoman empire”. To achieve this goal, Iran’s rulers sought to interfere in the affairs of the majority of Arab countries, claiming to be defending Shia Muslims in countries where Sunni Muslims are a majority.

It was noteworthy that Iranians who demonstrated this week all over the country were fully aware of these expansionist ambitions, announcing their rejection of this policy. The Iranians protested their regime’s interference in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and many other far away countries while they were suffering economic hardships despite promises that milk and honey were to come after signing the nuclear deal with key world countries led by the United States, Europe, Russia and China, 18 months ago.

Indeed, the Iranian regime benefitted tremendously from the nuclear deal, lifting the freeze on billions of dollars held in US banks in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. European countries, especially France, were also eager to invest large sums in Iran and to compensate their absence for many years from Iran’s lucrative oil industry.

However, the Iranian regime squandered all these benefits, and the general welcome for the moderate speech of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It appeared that we were seeing the repetition of the scenario witnessed when Mohamed Khatami served as Iran’s president, offering lots of sweet talk, with little — if any — genuine changes in Tehran’s policies that worsened its ties with its neighbours and gained it little support worldwide.

Obviously, the president’s role in Iran is mainly ceremonial, while the real decisions are made by the Grand Ayatollah, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other agencies, namely the Revolutionary Guard and secret intelligence services. That’s why no chants were heard against Rouhani in the protests Iran witnessed this week, and in which at least a dozen protesters were killed in the first three days of demonstrations alone. Videos showed people in central Tehran chanting: “Down with the dictator!” in an apparent reference to Khamenei, who is treated as a holy figure with veto power over all elected institutions. Candidates for these “elected” institutions also have to go through tight scrutiny by religious bodies who regularly ban thousands from representing the Iranian people over charges of failing to back the Islamic Revolution.

Iran, and despite spending billions of dollars in many countries and seeking to promote its authoritarian model, failed repeatedly to win enough votes in the UN General Assembly to gain membership of the Security Council. But this was a message the regime never bothered to understand.

Hopefully, Iran’s rulers would listen to the people and learn the lessons from nearby Arab countries that witnessed similar protests, known as the Arab Spring, in 2011. The Iranian government should stop blaming “outside forces”, “foreign conspiracies” and the social media for triggering the protests. Using brutal force by the police and secret security agencies to kill innocent Iranian protesters will only make matters worse. Like all dictator regimes, one of the first measures Iran’s government took in an attempt to end the protests was to block social media tools such as Twitter and Instagram, to prevent Iranians from organising more protests.

Such policies are simply a prescription for failure. It would be far better for Iran, a big country with a long and rich history, to listen to its people and give up its adventures in countries where its interference is not welcomed.

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