Time to tear down the Iran Curtain
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Between the gung-ho calls for regime change from the US, and the muted response from Europe, there is another way to respond to the protests in Iran, says Labour MP Mike Gapes.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 the world has faced a dilemma about how best to deal with the Islamic Republic. That dilemma has been heightened over recent weeks following the widespread protests and demonstrations throughout the country.
There has been a frenzy of speculation on social media and amongst diaspora groups about the origins, scale and demands of the protests. The current protests have grown in scope, but have not yet come close to the level that overthrew the Shah in 1978 or the protests against the rigged election, the 'Green Revolution' in 2009.
In 2013 Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani to serve as president of the Islamic Republic, filled with hope after the harsh and belligerent tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani campaigned as a moderate who would relax the excesses of the religious hard-liners, and mend his country's relations with the rest of the world. But the Iranian people did not see the economic boom they were expecting.
Over the past 10 years, average Iranians have become 15% poorer, as a consequence of rising inflation and stagnating wages. Iran's population grew from 40 million at the time of the Shah's fall, to 82 million today. 38.9% are 24 years of age or younger. The World Bank ranks Iran as one of the poorest governed countries. Transparency International says it is one of the most corrupt. Officially unemployment is 12% but the real figure is much higher. The International Trade Union Confederation ranks Iran as a 'category five' country – the worst level for a non-failed state. Protests over non-payment of wages and other workplace issues are common. The regime uses 'revolutionary' rather than civil courts to jail the leaders of independent trade unions on charges such as 'enmity to god'. The regime spends huge human and financial resources on efforts to influence or destabilise neighbouring Arab countries, on its alliance with Hezbollah, its malign role in Syria supporting Assad, and support for Palestinian rejectionist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In Syria alone, it is estimated that Iran is spending as much as $15-20 billion a year, including covering a substantial share of Hezbollah's costs. Total expenditure sustaining or escalating conflicts abroad is 4-5% of the country's $438 billion GDP.
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Iran is a more repressive country than its Arab neighbours. It is much worse than Bahrain, or Kuwait or the other Gulf states. Iran has the second highest execution rate in the world. (China is first). It executed 567 people in 2016. Saudi Arabia was third with 156.
The regime tightly controls the media and education. Iran is a male-dominated society with large conscript forces that serve as a further indoctrination and control mechanism. Security spending almost certainly exceeds its public budget figure of some $15.9 billion. Iran's military forces now total 523,000: 350,000 army; 125,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); 18,000 Navy; 30,000 Air Force; and 40,000 paramilitary forces like the Basij.
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These forces conscript or process well over 100,000 young men a year for at least 21 months of service. The hard-line IRGC commanders are tied directly to the Supreme Leader and not the civil government. In addition, 500,000 police serve as another instrument of indoctrination and control, along with up to 6,000 personnel in the Ministry of Intelligence and other intelligence and security forces.
The ageing theocratic regime has been in power for nearly 40 years. Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader is nearly 80 and said to be ill. Khamenei sided with President Rouhani in backing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran nuclear weapons deal, and economic reforms limiting support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the religious foundations, or Bunyods, run by Iran's hard-line clergy. With the backing of the Supreme Leader, Rouhani reached the best possible nuclear deal and managed to lift crippling UN and EU sanctions. He also succeeded in keeping hard-liners from blocking the then-emerging social media, Instagram and Telegram.
Following his landslide re-election victory last year, President Rouhani was seen as a strong contender to succeed the Supreme Leader. Rouhani presented a budget to the Majlis – the country's legislative body – which was widely publicised on social media. He hoped that popular pressure would force parliament to cut public funding for dozens of institutions created or boosted by Ahmadinejad. This led to strong resistance. Hard-line leaders organised public protests in their strongholds such as Mashad, Isfahan, and Hamedan. When some protests got out of hand and turned violent, Rouhani broke his election promise and blocked Telegram and Instagram, which have been accused by the hard-liners of inciting violence.
Following the wave of protests, there was a sharp contrast between the public statements from the Trump administration, supporting the protestors and calling for regime change, and the cautious, diplomatic language used by European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, reflecting the broad consensus view amongst the 28 European states, and similar statements by the German, French, and British Governments and the UK Labour opposition.
The main reason for this contrasting approach is a fundamental difference between the Trump administration and Europe over the Iran nuclear accord, a legacy issue of his predecessor Barack Obama. European governments argue that the nuclear deal should be seen on its own terms and viewed separately from the protests. They believe it makes it easier to engage Tehran on other issues and increases the West's leverage in Tehran. However this tepid response to the protests, in contrast to Trump's blunt calls for the overthrow of the Iranian government, has opened Europe to accusations of siding with fundamentalist ayatollahs against citizens wanting a better life.
I would argue that both the US and the European approaches are wrong. European governments and political leaders should not bite their tongues or hold back from speaking out in support of European values. The US should not engage in regime change rhetoric and bluster which only serves to strengthen hard-line opponents of the nuclear deal and of reform in Tehran. Both the EU and the US could endorse the call by Amnesty International for the Iranian authorities to ensure the right to peaceful protest; to the stop the increasingly ruthless crackdown; to investigate the deaths of protesters; and to protect detainees from torture. However these calls are unlikely to be heeded by a theocratic regime which has repeatedly shown that it will use an iron fist against internal opponents. It is likely that Iran's regime will ride out its current problems by a carrot and stick combination of continued repression and promises to carry out reforms recommended by the IMF and World Bank. However if it fails to do so it is likely to face other bigger protests in the future. The best course of action for Europe will be to adopt a strategic approach similar to that followed towards the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s one based on containment and deterrence combined with robust dialogue and continuing public support for our own values of human rights and democracy.
Mike Gapes is Labour MP for Ilford South.