If the Iranian people want freedom from the mullahs and can seize it for themselves, then we should wish them solidarity and luck. They will need it — for every succeeding stage, as well as this one. They are facing a regime that is not just the region’s chief destabiliser and terror sponsor, but a brutal theocracy. And that regime will certainly remain in power so long as the rest of the world remains as confused, compromised, sympathetic and supine as it has been in recent days and years.
If there is one lesson the world should have learned from Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009 and the so-called Arab Spring that followed, it is this: the worst regimes stay. Rulers who are only averagely appalling (Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak) can be toppled by uprisings. Those who are willing to kill every one of their countrymen stay. So it is that after almost half a million dead we enter 2018 with Bashar al-Assad still President of Syria and with Iran’s mullahs approaching the 40th anniversary of their seizure of power in 1979.
Last week this lesson got a chance to be learned again when protests broke out on streets across Iran, and the world wondered which date this one might echo. A revolution finally to counter 1979? Or just another replay of the brutally suppressed protests of 2009?
The origins and cause of these latest protests are already contested. The regime claims foreign interference. Others warn of clerics even more hardline than the regime. But most early reports indicate that protesters began by highlighting the country’s living standards. Specifically, they complained about the government’s use of its recent economic bonus (from the lifting of sanctions) not to help the Iranian people, but to pursue wider regional ambitions. Iranian forces are currently fighting in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This from a power whose defenders still claim is not expansionist.
Iran is experiencing low growth, high unemployment and inflation (10 per cent) and the increasing unaffordability of necessities such as eggs and milk. But the most striking factor is how swiftly the protests became not just critical of the government, but openly anti-regime. Outside the gates of Tehran University a crowd chanted slogans against the nation’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, including ‘Death to the dictator’. The nationwide demonstrations, which have not been led by any single demographic, class, or group, have included cries of ‘Leave Gaza, leave Lebanon, my life (only) for Iran’. Chants of ‘Death to Hezbollah’ (Iran’s terrorist proxy currently fighting in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria) have also been heard from Mashhad to Kermanshah. After several days, Ayatollah Khamenei tried to dampen this motif by appealing (unsuitably for a cleric who claims to be devoted solely to Allah and the Imam) to the patriotism of all Iranians. The regime may be worrying. Whereas 2009’s protests centred on Tehran, these are rural as well as urban, and remarkably widespread.
Yet anyone who expects these demonstrations to lead to swift change in the nature of the Iranian government remembers no history. Shortly after the latest protests began, the country’s security forces, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, were seen photographing the events. In Iran, a regime camera is as deadly as a sniper’s sights. Only more delayed. As in 2009, the photographs will be used by the police to arrest demonstrators and also family members unconnected with the protests. This will be followed by the torture and rape of men and women in prison by the theocratic regime’s frontmen. As after the Green Revolution, there will in due course be show trials, forced recantations and executions. This is how a police state with four decades of experience goes about its business. In 1979, the behaviour of the Shah’s dreaded Savak secret police was one of the spurs for revolution. The Ayatollahs have superseded the Savak, fine-tuned their brutality and learned from their mistakes.
Anyone in doubt about the capacity of the Supreme Leader to hang on to power need only watch the footage of crowds in the city of Rasht advancing down the street on one of the first nights of protest. You can see the exact moment when the regime’s Revolutionary Guard starts attacking the protesters. The crowd that is marching one way down the street suddenly finds an organised army running towards them. These are trained killers being unleashed on angry but peaceful civilians. Six hundred people have already been arrested and dozens already killed. The civilians don’t stand a chance.