I had a “watching me, watching you” moment this week. An Israeli news report on the wave of demonstrations in Iran started with Iranian coverage of Palestinian protests following US President Donald Trump’s announcement on December 6 recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The reporter had a gas mask draped around his neck, carefully giving the impression that he was ready for action. Based on that report, Iranian viewers must think that Israel is burning, whereas the main news story of the week was the sudden stormy weather. Winters in Israel are much briefer than Palestinian uprisings and are more likely to cause temporary paralysis of normal life.
Heavy rain (not to mention snow when it falls) is more likely to bring the country to a halt than rocket fire and terrorist attacks.
It shows the problem of trying to follow an uprising via media reports and social media. Iranians who are willing to be in touch with Israelis and are able to converse in English naturally tend to be middle class, educated and open-minded. Whether they represent the vast majority of demonstrators or not is anyone’s guess.
My heart went out to the protesters literally risking their lives in a bid for change. They must be acutely aware that during the Green Revolution of 2009, when freedom-seekers sought to overthrow the results of a clearly rigged election, the world looked on without doing anything.
It’s easy to snigger at US President Donald Trump’s diplomacy- by-tweet policy, but in 2009 then-POTUS Barack Obama didn’t want to lift a finger even on the social media to support the democracy movement until the repression became too brutal to ignore. It was one of the first serious mistakes in Obama’s foreign policy. Obama did not want to risk his concept of creating a dialogue with the ayatollahs’ regime. Had he reached out to the protesting Iranians then, he could have potentially prevented the later lethal Arab Spring and the wars and turmoil that developed from it, not to mention the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. That deal was signed in July 2015 and is presumed to have prevented Iran from reaching the stage of nuclear breakout for 10 years. How fast did the first 2½ years go for you? And how safe do you feel knowing that tons of Iran’s enriched uranium were moved to Russia? If the latest wave of Iranian protests took you by surprise, you’re not alone. But don’t find comfort in that. Many so-called experts were also caught off-guard, and if they can’t get that right, how are we meant to trust the rest of their punditry on the Iranian regime’s intentions and future? Personally, every time I hear Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani described as a “moderate” I feel the need to protest. A winning smile is not enough. It’s you and me that he’s laughing at.
News coverage of the protests in the West has been sympathetic, as it was in 2009, but that’s no guarantee of success with a regime that has learned that it can literally get away with murder.
Business speaks and big business speaks even louder.
Iran presents a huge market full of opportunities for the West, but as the protests indicate, the economic benefits of the nuclear deal – the lifting of sanctions and cash influx – has not trickled down to the proverbial man on the street in places like Mashhad, Qom and lesser-known towns and villages.
French President Emmanuel Macron lifted his finger and wagged it, but the scolding wasn’t enough to cause any real diplomatic fallout. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on January 1 posted on Facebook, “The UK is watching events in Iran closely. We believe that there should be meaningful debate about the legitimate and important issues the protesters are raising and we look to the Iranian authorities to permit this....” Catherine Ray, spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign policy head Federica Mogherini, tepidly tweeted statements like: “We will continue to monitor the situation.”
Some Iran pundits say Trump’s open support for the dissidents is interpreted in Tehran as proof that the “Great Satan” instigated the protests. When the unpredictable Trump tweets “the US is watching!” it sounds more threatening. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a response on the subject only after five days, after Rouhani blamed Israel and Saudi Arabia for fomenting the unrest. In a video, Netanyahu emphasized that there is no argument between the people of Israel and the Iranian people. I have also met Iranians who believe the two countries could one day restore the peaceful, and very profitable, relations that existed until the overthrow of the shah in 1979.
Unfortunately, it is not only Tehran that is watching Western inaction. Pyongyang, too, is looking and learning.
Dictatorial regimes everywhere can draw conclusions from the Western silence. Russian President Vladimir Putin can permit himself a cold, cynical smile.
It used to be noted that despite the tension between Israel and Iran, they did not share a border, thus supposedly reducing the actual threat the Islamic Republic posed to the Jewish state, which the regime in Tehran still vows to eliminate. That is no longer accurate. Into the failed state that was Syria stepped Russia and Iran. In fact, the Iranian influence can now be felt from Lebanon, through Syria, Iraq, and as far south as Yemen, where the Houthis occasionally lob rockets at Saudi Arabia.
Just this week, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced the arrest of a Palestinian involved in trying to organize a terrorist cell in Judea and Samaria on Iran’s behalf via a connection in South Africa. And Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced that the rockets being fired on southern Israel from Gaza have Iranian backing.
It’s another reason to feel sympathy for the protesters in Iran who realize that funds that could be used for rebuilding the earthquake-hit zone, for example, are being diverted to create and fight proxy wars hundreds of miles away from the homes that desperately need reconstruction.
According to Al Jazeera among others, the protesters are chanting slogans such as “Forget Palestine,” “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran.” The Iranian public does not want to sacrifice lives and economic well-being for the wars of others.
There have been small solidarity rallies in France and Germany among other places. In Israel, Iranian blogger and human rights activist Neda Amin, who found sanctuary in Jerusalem in August after Turkey threatened to deport her to Iran, braved the weather – cold by local standards – and helped organize a small demonstration outside the Old City walls. The vigil suffered from a lack of advance publicity but no lack of enthusiasm.
“I am here as the Iranian voice. The Iranian people need help,” she told The Jerusalem Post’s Udi Shaham. “They don’t want a regime of dictators – we want to free Iran.”
Amin added that: “The people in Iran like the Israeli people very much.”
Amin, who clearly appreciates the freedom she has found here, hopes to organize a bigger rally in Tel Aviv.
As Jerusalem Post
Washington correspondent Michael Wilner noted this week, Trump faces the January 11 deadline to recertify the JCPOA nuclear accord followed by the question of whether to renew or lift the sanctions on Iran related to the progress on the deal.
When eyes in Russia, North Korea, and terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are trained on what happens next, foreign leaders of the free world need to remember the meaning of the words “leaders” and “free.”
It requires more than watching and urging “meaningful debate” with a repressive regime.