Widespread protests have engulfed Iran for at least two weeks. Despite nearly 8,000 arrests, 50 deaths, thousands wounded, and deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), calls continue to go out for protests in dozens of cities.
The 2017 uprising was different from the 2009 Green Movement in several respects. The latest demonstrations started out with smaller numbers but with a much broader geographic and social base. There are no declared leaders to arrest and no specific location to suppress.
The ideological focus of the emerging movement was also far-reaching. Whereas the Green Movement focused primarily on disputed election results, the current protests emerged out of the economic anxieties of a population that has been essentially plundered by the self-serving clerical elite. Large crowds of protestors have been heard chanting “death to the dictator,” calling not just for reform but for the overturning of the theocracy.
In at least one respect, there is nothing new about the current unrest in Iran. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the mullahs to power, the people of Iran have been in near constant revolt against the repressive and corrupt rule of the clerics. In the summer of 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered and oversaw the execution of 30,000 political dissidents accused of membership in the leading opposition (MEK), which began calling for regime change in favor of Western-style democracy soon after 1979 Revolution.
On Tuesday, January 9, the regime's current supreme leader Ali Khamenei said in a televised speech in Qom that the MEK were responsible for "leading" the current uprisings. Khamenei said that the MEK "had been ready for months ... They organized since several months ago, and met various people; to select some people inside the country, find them and help them, so they would come and call [for uprising]. ... They managed to attract some people with this slogan. And then, they could come to the scene and pursue their goals, and make the people follow them."
In 1999, 2007 and 2009, Iranian politicians, students, intellectuals, civil society activists and ordinary citizens took to the streets in protests against various aspects of the regime’s economic, social, political or electoral policies.
Seen in this context, the current protests demonstrated a growing public consensus in favor of an Iran that is free from the tyranny of the mullahs. Opposition movements are multiplying in number, geographic and social diversity and outspokenness. While the Green Movement spoke for the young, highly educated middle class in the capital city of Tehran, the 2017 protests added the voices of the marginalized peoples in smaller cities, rural areas, and ethnic minority communities. These two trends in anti-government activism have set themselves up to collide head on with the Islamic Republic. Many observers agree that while the scattered protests did not represent a new revolution, they were certainly pointing in that direction and have the potential to become a full-fledged revolt if conditions allow.
This, of course, is a long-held dream for many Americans who recognize the Islamic Republic as the godfather of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism worldwide. Those Americans should welcome the current uprising as a stark reminder that their interests and the interests of the Iranian people coincide.
To his credit, President Trump has tweeted several expressions of support for the protest movement while condemning the brutality of the Islamic Republic and promising that the US will keep a close watch on the human rights abuses tragically familiar as part of Tehran’s response to dissent. He also declared that the US would provide support “at the appropriate time.”
Considering that the protests expressed a nearly 40-year wait for democracy and self-determination, the time is now. This is not to say that the US should intervene directly in Iranian affairs, but expressions of moral support are not enough. Immediate measures are needed to help prevent the Iranian regime from suppressing the will of the people, either through violence or through suppression of the flow of information inside the country. Both of these tactics are already being employed; protestors have been shot and mobile internet has been interrupted. Inevitably, both of these tactics will worsen unless the US leads the world community in putting pressure on the regime, its repressive institutions, and any companies that might provide it with the tools to prevent Iranians from expressing their discontent.
The announcement of relevant sanctions and censures will allow the Trump administration to express in deed the support it has already expressed in words. But as we wait for these policies to take shape, it is important to recognize that the Iranian people need a banner to rally behind. So long as some lines of communication remain open in Iran, the White House should make it known that it supports not only the current protests but also the democratic vision which inspired them.