Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
To better understand the Islamic Republic of Iran, don’t turn straight away to the front page of the newspaper. Rather flip to the labor union and business sections and press. Growing worker unrest, particularly among trade unions, suggests that regime change in Iran cannot be summarily dismissed.
The September 13 death of Shahrokh Zamani, a labor union activist in Iran’s Rajaee Shahr Prison, is another sign that Iran’s regime is filled with anxiety about worker unrest. Zamani’s purported death from a stroke was more likely an execution by the regime. A Revolutionary Court in Tabriz sentenced Zamani to 11 years in prison for “acting against national security by attempting to form [a] house painters’ union” and “propaganda against the state.”
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “Labor unions are prevented from operating independently in Iran and labor leaders are systematically arrested, prosecuted under national security charges and sentenced to long prison terms.”
Iran’s regime has cracked down on teachers protesting inadequate salaries, including the arrests of Alireza Hashemi, the secretary-general of the Iranian Teachers’ Association, and Esmail Abdi, the head of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association. In early 2015, 6,000 teachers sent a letter to Ali Larijani, the head of Iran’s parliament, stating: “The majority of Iran’s teachers are not able to take care of their basic needs and live under the poverty line. Their status in society has been damaged and they have lost their motivation to work.”
The key sectors to watch are oil workers and the Tehran Bazaar. It is worth recalling that clashes took place between the regime’s security forces and protesters at the bazaar, with the market temporarily going on strike, after Iran’s currency went into a meltdown in 2012.
The friction in Iran’s industrial relations system might portend the kind of upheaval that unfolded in the Arab world starting in 2011. Prior to the Arab revolts, Tunisia and Egypt experienced years of labor strikes and employee dissatisfaction with economies that stifled upward mobility and devalued its workers.
There are competing schools of thought on regime change in a post-nuclear deal Iran. Writing last week for Reuters, Joost Hiltermann argued: “Decades after the 1979 uprising that ousted Washington’s ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and led to the 444-day captivity of American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, the United States is no longer intent on effecting regime change and settling scores. The nuclear accord signifies a belated acceptance of, and accommodation with, the Islamic Revolution and the clerical order it spawned.”
If one takes a snapshot of US-Iran relations in 2015, Hiltermann is correct. Yet a new US administration in 2016 could replicate a version of former president Ronald Reagan’s regime-change posture for the now-defunct Soviet Union and impose it on Iran.
There are other schools of thought that argue change in Iran is just a matter of time. Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote on the web site Commentary that, “The Islamic Republic is not popular in Iran. There have been nationwide protests against it in 1999, 2001 and 2009. That does not mean the Iranian population is revolutionary; they are not. At best, they are apathetic.
“Ultimately, the Iranian people will shed the Islamist dictatorship which has murdered so many, tortured thousands more, deprived others of their dreams, and transformed the image of Iran across the globe not as the repository of an ancient civilization, but rather into the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Michael Ledeen, the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where this writer is a fellow, noted in The Weekly Standard earlier this year: “If you made a list of social, economic and political conditions that undermine the legitimacy of a regime, you’d likely conclude that Iran is in what we used to call a ‘prerevolutionary situation.’” He wrote, “Remember that Reagan was told that [former president Mikhail] Gorbachev was firmly in control on the eve of the Soviet Union’s implosion, and the CIA scoffed at the very idea of an organized uprising in Iran before the massive demonstrations of 2009... Western support for regime change – which has long been the most sensible and honorable Iran policy – once again beckons to anyone who wants to take a giant step toward a rational policy.”
While the Iran nuclear deal will provide Iran with a massive economic windfall in the realm of over $100 billion in sanctions relief, the notoriously corrupt regime has never prioritized the needs of ordinary Iranians.