Iran’s mass movement of popular protest, sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the country’s notorious morality police, has now entered its fifth week. While many Western media outlets have focused on the feminist, women-led aspect of the demonstrations, the movement itself almost instantly jumped from a protest against the policy of forced hijab-wearing and the unequal treatment of women to an uncompromising demand that the regime itself must go.
Whereas previous uprisings eventually transitioned from protesting stolen elections (2009) and corrupt economic policy (2019) to expressing broad dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic itself, the current movement adopted the slogan ‘Death to the Dictator’ from day one. While the deplorable situation of legally sanctioned ‘gender apartheid’ in Iran remains one of the core grievances of those protesting today, reflected in the rallying cry ‘women, life, freedom’, there is no prospect that disbanding the morality police or reforming to Iran’s family law code (however unrealistic) could placate those on the streets.
In short, Iran is experiencing a revolutionary moment. Whether that will translate into a revolutionary outcome is still uncertain. A lot would need to happen both inside and outside the country for the protesters to succeed in removing the regime, which would not go quietly or without significant bloodshed. The revolutionaries (for that is what they are) would need to expand their movement beyond the streets and act to disrupt the government’s grip on both security and the economy. The international community could play a decisive role in helping the protesters take that step, should Western nations choose to pivot their Iran policies away from the increasingly moribund nuclear deal (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and focus instead on the needs and demands of the Iranian people.
There are already tentative signs that small cracks are emerging, both in the security forces’ ability to sustain their brutal crackdown on protesters, and in the central government’s control over key economic sectors. Videos have been widely circulated on social media showing uniformed policemen joining the demonstrations, and even of irate mothers shaming their sons into abandoning their armed patrols and retreating home. The number of defectors is not likely to be of practical concern to those in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij militia and the regular police forces tasked with targeting the protesters. However, such clips have immense propaganda value and set a dangerous precedent that could inspire others to follow.
Reports have also emerged online of Arabic- and Dari-speaking mercenaries policing the streets in some cities, fuelling speculation that Iran’s security forces are demoralised and exhausted, and that the regime has sought to tap some of its battle-hardened proxy networks in Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan to bolster its repressive apparatus. If confirmed, the use of mercenaries would indicate the extent to which the regime is concerned about its ability to contain the protests. It could also lead to a significant escalation in violence. When Arab dictators adopted similar tactics during the uprisings of 2011, foreign mercenaries showed far less compunction about killing unarmed civilians than local security forces, who might think twice before shooting at, say, a group of protesting schoolgirls belonging to similar socio-familial or ethno-religious networks to themselves.
In the past week, we have also seen the announcement of workers’ strikes in some key sectors of the Iranian economy. Striking oil and petrochemical workers in particular have emerged as a threat to one of the regime’s most crucial sources of revenue. Academics have also gone on strike, or even resigned, to protest the treatment of their students, many of whom have been arrested, disappeared or even killed. Merchants also closed down Tehran’s famous Grand Bazaar, an important symbolic blow, particularly as the more conservative bazaari class had traditionally aligned itself with the regime. National general strikes played a significant role in crippling Mohammad Reza Shah’s government during the revolution of 1978–79, and should Iran’s labour movement succeed in orchestrating a general strike today, it could bode extremely poorly for the Islamic Republic’s ability to manage the threat from the protests.
Washington and its European partners, long afflicted by a myopic fixation on the JCPOA, have recently shown promising signs of broadening their Iran policy to account for the protesters’ demands. The US has announced sanctions on Iran’s morality police and its leadership, as well as several prominent individuals involved in the crackdown, including Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi and Communications Minister Eissa Zarepour, an alumnus of the University of New South Wales who is rumoured to hold Australian citizenship. The UK has followed suit, sanctioning the morality police and individuals including the head of the Basij force, and the EU recently announced a package of sanctions targeting regime officials responsible for ordering the violent repression of protests.
Canada, not a party to the JCPOA, has led the way on punishing Iran for its deadly crackdown and other human rights violations. On 13 October it announced sanctions on prominent Iranian ‘reformist’ politicians closely associated with the nuclear deal, including long-time foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and has also banned the top 50% of the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, some 10,000 people, from entering Canada. While declaring that the IRGC is a ‘terrorist organisation’, the Canadian government stopped short of formally listing the group as such.
Amid this flurry of international action, the Australian government has largely remained silent on the issue of the Iranian protests. Foreign Minister Penny Wong released a carefully worded statement condemning the violence a fortnight after it erupted, but Australia is yet to indicate that it intends to join its Western allies in punishing the regime with sanctions, asset freezes or travel bans. It has been reported that the Iranian Foreign Ministry has sent threatening letters to several European ambassadors warning of a rupture in diplomatic relations should the EU move forward in approving additional sanctions. Have Australian diplomats received similar communiqués from Tehran?
Australia’s history of using its autonomous human rights sanctions regime has been woeful. Since its version of Magnitsky legislation passed the parliament in December 2021, Australia has applied sanctions to only a handful of Russian officials. It has even declined to sanction the Myanmar junta following the violent military coup of February 2021, ostensibly because Myanmar has detained the Australian economist Sean Turnell on spurious charges of violating the state secrets act. This sets a worrying precedent, in that it sends the message that Australia’s commitment to opposing gross violations of human rights is contingent upon narrow diplomatic considerations.
If the Iranian regime were holding Australian citizens in its prisons, it would likely also seek to leverage their fate to prevent Australia from imposing sanctions. In the past six months, Iran has arrested more than a dozen foreign visitors, including nine Europeans following the outbreak of the protests. Australia risks providing an incentive for the Iranian regime’s bad behaviour if we continue to resist joining our international partners in imposing sanctions on the individuals and institutions responsible for the current brutal crackdown.
Western countries have a clear and obvious interest in hastening the demise of one of the Middle East’s most brutal and intransigent Islamist dictatorships. Iran’s secretive nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism and interference in the affairs of its neighbours, as well as its imperviousness to the reform or moderation of its uncompromising ideology, have long been a thorn in the side of the US and its allies.
Western nations, including Australia, must accept that pursuing a nuclear deal with a regime that is quite literally shooting unarmed children in the streets is unconscionable. Instead, we should support the protesters by indefinitely pausing all negotiations that could lead to the transfer of funds or assets back to the Islamic Republic, including prisoner-swap agreements that trade cash for hostages. The international community should act to weaken the regime by further extending economic and human rights sanctions, by evicting regime lackies and their offspring from Western capitals, and by doing all it can to keep Iran’s internet online.
A revolution is brewing in Iran. Our priority should be to give it every possible chance of success.
Source » Aspistrategist