The self-immolation death of an Iranian Arab last week in the province of Khuzestan offers a window onto the court of a neglected alternative to an Iran on the brink of nuclear weapons breakout: Can Iranians end the country’s character as a revolutionary Islamic state hell-bent on nuclear weapons and internal repression?
Iranian authorities denied Younes Asakereh, a fruit stand vendor, a chance to make ends meet. Asakereh’s case resembles the tragic protest of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller, who was stripped of his business by Tunisian police in 2010 and set himself on fire. Bouazizi famously sparked the first grassroots Arab revolt, prompting Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.
In interviews with The Jerusalem Post
on Friday, leading experts on regime change in Iran expressed views that Iran’s civil society is ripe for change. Tehran’s work on a military nuclear program
is inseparable from its internal repression of supporters of human freedoms and democracy.
Saba Farzan, the German-Iranian executive director of Foreign Policy Circle, a strategy think tank in Berlin, said, "There are many reasons why Iran's young generation is receptive towards democracy, but I would break it down to two main factors: secularism and gender equality. Young Iranians want their religion to transform away from radicalism to individual spirituality compatible with democratic institutions. What they aspire to is the polar opposite to the Islamic Republic's ideology.”
Dr. Michael Ledeen, the Freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has written extensively about the inherent potential within Iran’s society to overthrow its fundamentally anti-democratic regime. He sees the potential for transformation as “huge,” adding “it's not just me."
"The regime sees it. That is why repression is increasing and the execution rate under Rouhani is about 50% higher than it was under [former Iranian president] Ahmadinejad," Ledeen said.
According to Ledeen, “Iran has all the requisites of a successful country: a real middle class, a decent educational system, and widespread rejection of radical Islam (there's a big Zoroastrian revival there, not often discussed). The country today fulfills most of the conditions that used to define a ‘revolutionary situation.’”
Dr. Michael Rubin, a sharp critic of the US’s concessionary negotiating strategy with Iran’s regime, said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the regime he created were, "accidents of history, not the natural order of Iranian political evolution."
"This is one of the reasons why the Islamic Republic is so afraid of its own people. Ever since 2007, for example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been organized to prioritize defeat of internal threats over those posed by external enemies,” Rubin said.
Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that “There has been no shortage of sparks in Iran that show the Iranian peoples' true desire: In 1999, they rose up to protest the abuse of students; in 2001, they poured into the streets because of the rumor that the Iranian government had ordered Iran's national team to throw a World Cup qualifier to Bahrain in order to prevent men and women from celebrating together in the streets; and in 2009, they protested when the regime blatantly threw an election.”
What can the West, especially the US, do to assist Iranians striving for democracy within a relatively closed society?
Uri Lubrani, the head of Israel’s mission to Iran from 1973-1978 during the Shah period, provided some timeless advice for heads of state in a 2011 interview with The Post
. Obama “needs to say that the US supports by every legal means the effort by the Iranian people to achieve freedom and democracy. That the US will invest efforts in this. That the US will invest money in this. That would electrify the Iranians. That’s what he has to say publicly,” Lubrani said.
The paucity of Western interest in supporting Iran’s civil society opposition was on display with Obama’s Nowruz (Persian New Year) address in March. He chose to mainstream Iran—the leading state sponsor of terrorism—by referring to it as the “Islamic Republic” and offered no criticism of widespread human rights violations on President Hassan Rouhani’s watch.
Ledeen, whose writings outline democracy promotion in Iran, said “If we helped them, they could, I think, succeed. If we could bring down the Soviet Empire, a much tougher task, we should certainly be able to topple the ayatollahs.”
Farzan noted “until now very few countries support Iran's civil society, chief among them is Canada. It is evident that Iran's Islamist dictators have to be isolated so that its young democrats can succeed. Imagine many more countries joining Canada's moral clarity and strategic vision of a democratic Iran - a dream can then finally become reality.”
Rubin, the author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes
, said “The key to regime change in Iran is the defeat of the Revolutionary Guards. Here, the United States has a long way to go. Because while we talk about Iranian politics on a spectrum ranging from hardline to reform, the truth is we don't know about the factional breakdown within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
According to Rubin, there is “lots” for the US and Europe to do for struggling Iranian democrats.
“How ironic it is that European Greens and US Democrats support worker’s rights everywhere but Iran, where they ignore the Islamic Republic's few independent trade unions," Rubin said.
“And what a waste of money it is that the Central Intelligence Agency will trace the finances of Iranian leaders, but will never expose the massive Swiss bank accounts that their leaders have siphoned of. And while the Iranian regime spends hundreds of millions trying to prevent a free internet, for a fraction of that price, the United States could help Iranian bypass firewalls with technologies like UltraSurf which simply need server capacity to be more effective,” he added.
The character of Iranian revolutionary ideology cannot tolerate active opponents of Western-style freedoms. In a post-Iran nuclear agreement world, the plight of Iranians seeking a liberal social order will not disappear. The pressing questions are: Will the West aid democratic opponents of the regime of the mullahs and how will the West react to the next Iranian democratic upheaval?
Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post, and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.