The Iranians who have taken to the streets in nationwide anti-government protests must feel a chilling sense of deja vu as they attempt to challenge the all-encompassing authority of the ayatollahs. The last time Iran’s oppressed populace protested the clerics’ woeful misrule, during the short-lived Green Revolution in the summer of 2009, they found their hopes dashed by a ferocious crackdown on their liberties, orchestrated by regime loyalists.
Because of the closed nature of the country’s theocratic dictatorship, it is impossible to say for sure how many protesters perished in 2009 at the hands of the combined reactionary forces of the Revolutionary Guard, the protectors of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and the Basij, the rag-tag people’s militia that fulfils a similar function at times of national crisis. However, Iranian opposition groups and human rights activists put the number of those killed and injured in the high thousands.
It is still early days so far as the latest outbreak of anti-government agitation is concerned, but already there are disturbing indications that the regime is resorting to the same tactics it employed to crush the Green Revolution, which was provoked by the disputed re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
While the number of fatalities to date appears low — around 20 protesters are reported to have lost their lives — the regime is seeking to suppress dissent by cutting internet communications and trotting out the usual propaganda that the demonstrations are the work of foreign interlopers. At the same time, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij have been mobilised to prevent any further escalation in the protests which, in contrast to 2009, began in remote provincial outposts over the New Year, and are now taking hold in the main towns and cities.
In many respects, the root causes of this new anti-government movement are not that different from the resentments that fuelled the Green Revolution, namely: Decades of economic mismanagement by the clerical regime and endemic corruption, much of it blamed on the Revolutionary Guard which controls more than half of the Iranian economy.
Indeed, the election of the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013 was said to reflect the regime’s acknowledgement that economic reform was essential to the Islamic Republic’s survival. This was certainly the principal motivation behind Rouhani’s drive to secure a deal with the world’s leading powers over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, which most western intelligence experts believe is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. The wide-ranging economic sanctions imposed on the country for its consistent non-compliance on a number of vital nuclear issues had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy, and Rouhani hoped that, by securing a deal, the sanctions would be lifted and Iran’s economic prospects revived.
It is estimated that Iran has gained around $150 billion (Dh551.7 billion) as a result of sanctions being lifted when the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, more than enough to sow the seeds of economic regeneration.
However, while Rouhani’s government has enjoyed a modicum of success — inflation has been cut from 40 per cent pre-deal to around 10 per cent today — the opportunity to undertake wholesale reform has been squandered by the regime’s preference for diverting vital funds to finance overseas military adventures in countries such as Yemen and Syria.
Some estimates put the total cost of Iran’s support for the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship as running at $35 billion a year. Add to this the backing for Al Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as a range of other terror groups such as Hamas, and it becomes clear that the ayatollahs are paying a heavy price for their commitment to exporting their Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East.
Such activities, of course, are completely contrary to the spirit of the nuclear deal, as United States President Donald Trump has repeatedly pointed out. Nor has this gross misuse of funds been lost on the protesters, with many calling for an end to Iran’s involvement in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
In an authoritarian regime such as Iran, though, this protest movement is unlikely to prevail without some form of outside help. The regime was able to get away with crushing the Green Revolution in 2009 because the then US president, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, declined to support the clamour for political reform. (Clinton now says that this was her biggest regret during her tenure at the State Department).
This mistake must not be repeated. When dealing with rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, it is vital that the outside world presents a united front. And just as the threat of crippling sanctions has made an impact on Pyongyang, so a similar response is required against Tehran to persuade the ayatollahs that they cannot continue to oppress the Iranian people.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.