February 11th marks the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, one of the most significant dates in the political calendar of the Islamic Republic and certain to be a pretext for more opposition protests. Ahead of this, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned the opposition to distance itself from the country’s ‘Western enemies’.
The protests that were ignited by the fraudulent June 12th reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have set the streets of Iran alight with the fury of millions of protestors. The regime’s attempt to curtail the actions of the ‘Green Movement’ — so called because of the campaign colour of reformist candidate Mir Houssan Mousavi — by killing, torturing or imprisoning protestors has only fanned the flames, and opposition protests persist.
The regime, evidently anxious about the increasing strength of the opposition and its own inability to curtail the demonstrations, has used a traditional tactic of blaming foreign powers in the hope that the Iranian people will aim their frustration beyond their borders. Fars News Agency released pictures of demonstrators in support of the regime, holding pictures of three reform leaders (Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi and Mohammad Khatami) on the three points of a Star of David with the sign reading ‘lovers of Israel’. The regime has also accused the Mossad of penning the last open letter written by Mousavi, and asserted that he and other leaders of the reformist camp are an Israeli fifth column. Iran’s ambassador to Bahrain even claimed that Iranian authorities had carried out investigations and revealed that groups from Britain and the U.S. were carrying out assassinations by infiltrating the opposition.
This culture of blaming the West has always been used as a tool to divert attention away from the regime’s domestic problems. It is exemplified by the popularised Persian novel My Uncle Napoleon, which satirises the widespread Iranian belief that the British are responsible for all of Iran’s afflictions. The panjandrum of the book, ‘Dear Uncle’, is a paranoid and delusional character who imagines himself as Napoleon and believes there is a British plot to destroy him. As an extension of this, he sees the hidden hand of the British behind every event in Iran. Even when considering the history of Britain’s imperial intervention in Iran, the level of paranoia that ‘Dear Uncle’ — and indeed many others in Iran exhibit — is so extreme that it goes beyond reason.
But the regime cannot deceive the opposition, who are now in the majority. It exists, it knows it exists and it understands that its grievances are real — not a seed planted in its head by the West. What’s more, the opposition is only gaining support — Ahmadinejad is losing backing among his conservative base and his former allies are turning against him in disgust over the abuse of protestors. The protests themselves are no longer exclusively ‘Green’ but are being frequented by religious and conservative Iranians who have become disillusioned with Ahmadinejad and by extension, the Supreme Leader and the regime. The protests are also no longer exclusive to Tehran but are spreading across the country, to the less secular and affluent cities.
Iran’s voice abroad has also started to speak out — Mohammed-Reza Heydari, Iran’s consul in Oslo, recently resigned his post and denounced the government after its bloody suppression of the opposition’s demonstrations during Ashura. He could be the first of many prominent defectors, since he has urged others to do the same.
It is unclear how far the regime genuinely believes its claims that the West is responsible for the events of the last seven months, or whether it is just a ploy to tarnish the opposition by painting them as lackeys. However, there certainly are elements within the regime that suffer ‘Uncle Napoleon Syndrome’ and believe that the West is encouraging a velvet revolution.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said that the current situation is an Iranian affair and that the U.S. will refrain from ‘meddling’. Indeed, this view has some merit. An active, highly visible Western involvement with the opposition to promote regime change could undermine the opposition’s credibility and lend credence to the regime’s assertion of a Western-inspired plot. However, silence could be even worse. As leader of the free world, Obama has a moral obligation to signal to both the opposition and the regime that the world supports the plea for freedom. His overly cautious tone thus far is not sending that message.
Since the demonstrations are now as much about the mullahs’ regime as they are about June’s fraudulent elections, empowering the opposition is not just a moral obligation but a strategic one. The Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index ranks Iran’s personal freedom at 101 (out of 104 countries), surpassing only Zimbabwe, Jordan, and Pakistan. Despite this poor assessment, the Prosperity Index has attracted tremendous interest inside Iran. The second highest number of visits to the Prosperity Index website from any country since December has been from Iran (out of 171 countries), suggesting that the Iranian people know all too well the difficult conditions they are in, and want to find a better life for themselves. Western support of Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War is an example of the strategic gains that can be brought from supporting opponents of tyrannical regimes.
The opposition may lack leadership and structure, but the fact that it has not only survived but has also gained momentum, is its biggest achievement. In the 30 years since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has never endured such schisms or been more vulnerable than it is today and the regime’s desperate attempt to silence the reformists and to paint them as stooges is indicative of its distress over its unprecedented weakness. This should serve as a sign of its despondency to the West and it is with this realisation that all those who seek freedom for Iran should take solace.
The greatest hope we have for Iran is democratic change for and by the people. The memory of the chaos in the streets of Iran that eventually led to the fall of the Shah is not such a distant one. Whether the current turmoil will also end in a revolution is unclear, but what is clear is that the Green Movement is determined and its actions will unquestionably have a lasting effect on the politics of the Islamic Republic.