Why Iranians’ bid for freedom is also our fight - opinion

The governments of the West have, so far, been absent from the chorus of voices calling for freedom in Iran.

 IRANIAN AMERICANS, including two people dressed up as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, rally outside the White House, last month, in support of anti-regime protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.  (photo credit: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
IRANIAN AMERICANS, including two people dressed up as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, rally outside the White House, last month, in support of anti-regime protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.
(photo credit: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Iran’s budding revolution went global this weekend as protesters took their fight to the streets of our western capitals, living testimonies of the growing public support Iranians have mobilized as they continue to call for freedom. 

The governments of the West have, so far, been absent from the party, hiding behind empty declarations of solidarity. In the absence of tangible actions, they equate to no more than whispers against the brutality of a regime which has already claimed dozens of lives and imprisoned over a thousand intellectuals, artists and social media influencers in a few short weeks. The West may soon learn that its apathy may cost its institutions dearly.

If the Islamic Republic claims supremacy within the confines of its borders, its agencies have long exported its ideology, its outposts and networks of influence peppered across our capitals – the symbols of a will to rewrite our democracies to the mad ambitions of its mullahs.

Unless the West come to terms with the lenticular reach of the ayatollahs, we may soon find ourselves the unwanted hostages of dynamics threatening not only the integrity of our state institutions but of our very national security. For we have ignored the writing on the wall, thinking ourselves immune to Tehran’s influence – whether by arrogance or sheer political naivety. We have allowed our capitals to become instrumental in exporting Khomeini’s ideology; the regime’s men are left free to exploit our laws and institutions to pervert our spaces, with all the risks that entail.

Who is next in Tehran's crosshairs?

Today, the UK stands in Tehran’s line of fire; tomorrow, who knows? For every inch the regime has had to cede to protesters, risks to our security have exponentially increased. And since it is unlikely the regime will quietly abandon its positions, we must realize that as it faces complete collapse, Tehran will call on its outposts to rescue its political enterprise.

 A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's ''morality police'', in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022 (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's ''morality police'', in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022 (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

And though many still doubt the potency of Iran’s budding revolution, it would be to discount Iranians’ determination to lay waste to their oppressors to imagine they will ever retreat. Yes, Iran has witnessed periodic scenes of popular discontent over the years and yes, every single attempt at dislodging the regime has so far collapsed on the back end of extreme violence. But Iran was a different place then, its people’s motivations were different and their demands disjointed.

September’s outpouring of violence needs to be understood within the context of the country’s socioeconomic collapse: high unemployment, high inflation, the deterioration of public services such as access to health, potable water, electricity, and education, state-sponsored violence against both rights and political activists, as well as religious oppression against minority groups. Under the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi, the ‘Butcher of Tehran,’ the nation has been crippled by an unprecedented wave of repression and abuses. United in their fear, Iranians found common ground – the cornerstone of any revolutionary movement – in their rage against the regime.

Absence of tyrants

Those dynamics have been compounded by the very notable absence from public view of the regime’s main proponent and figurehead: the supreme leader.

Ali Khamenei’s recent disappearance amid reports of internal disputes over his succession has emboldened protesters, fanning hopes that the Islamic Republic is in fact on its last leg. Public perception today could well override political realities. 

Most telling of the regime’s loss of legitimacy was a declaration in late September by clerics hailing from Iran’s most renowned religious circles, labeling Khamenei unfit to rule. Never before have the clergy so publicly disavowed the regime, proof not only of the potency of the protests but the coming realization by the Shia clergy that should it survive the storm, it would need to declare its support of Iranians’ cries for freedom.

But what does this mean for us? And why should western countries be concerned by events unfolding so very far away from their borders?

Home to a large Iranian community (400,000 according to the latest figure), the UK has already been affected by the fallouts of Iran’s revolutionary outbursts. Protests on September 24-25 at the Iranian Embassy and the Islamic Centre of England demonstrate how quickly events in Iran can translate into violence abroad, with a real risk that unrest could spread further.

By virtue of its demographic, the UK is susceptible to an explosion of violence, orchestrated by both anti-regime protesters and regime supporters, thus forcing the authorities to act as a bona fide referee.

Iranian networks abroad

THE RISK to national security is compounded by the presence of a well-organized pro-regime network by way of charitable and religious organizations as well as media outlets, notwithstanding sympathies within Britain’s political landscape.

The Islamic Centre of England – a UK registered charity  – poses the most visual and inherent threat. Violating the guidelines of the Charity Commission, which proscribes any and all forms of political lobbying (never mind religious indoctrination), the center, with its five offices, operates as an extension of Khamenei’s authority abroad. Appointed by the Iranian leadership to act as its representative abroad, the center’s main mandate is to decimate the Islamic Republic’s ideology and recruit operatives to its ranks.

Iran’s reach has been growing and consolidating in the UK, more than in any other European country, something successive British governments have failed to curb.

And because it caters to the needs of those Shia Muslims in the UK, whose politics and ideology are in line with that of the Islamic Republic, the regime’s reach essentially cuts across ethnic lines, making its base as broad as it is wide – a concern should Tehran wish to mobilize.

The UK would gain from assuming that the Islamic Republic will encourage violence abroad to cater to the notion that protesters in Iran are playing a foreign powers game, threatening the interests of the Shia community to better assert their alleged neo-colonial agenda – a narrative Tehran has employed ad nauseam in the past.

Iran has long curated the notion that the West stands an enemy of Iran’s sovereignty by virtue of its colonial past, as well as argued Britain’s rejection of Islamic values due to its support of Israel. On this basis and in view of past attempts to destabilize our institutional integrity, Tehran may double-down on its rhetoric of hate and division to support its worldview – even and maybe more to the point, especially if it means sowing discord at home and abroad, wherever it has cultivated support.

There are signs today that Tehran intends on weaponizing its ideology and acting as an agent of chaos in the UK, driving home the notion that a war is being waged between the West and Islam, with all the complications and dangers it entails for the UK security services. There is also the very real possibility that Iran’s ideologues will attempt to drag other religious communities into the fray to hold London hostage of their manipulation and extract concessions from the government – mainly that it keeps mum about the abuses the regime will level at protesters on its home ground.

Iran blames the West

An article in the Tehran Times (September 28) outlines that very narrative arguing that several European capitals are behind anti-regime protests in Iran.

A master manipulator, the Islamic Republic will attempt to frame the protests against its rule as proof of western manipulation. Put that against protesters’ feelings of betrayal over Britain’s perceived protection of what they understand as the symbols and arms of the regime abroad, and we find ourselves in an unattainable situation.

And since no clear statement was issued as to the British government’s position on the protests, such a political vacuum may not only feed dangerous assumptions but fan resentment, setting it up as a recipe for disaster.

The current perception is that the UK acts as a gatekeeper to the regime, which in light of the current wave of protest against the regime, puts London seemingly at odds with the values it is committing to defend and project, namely human rights and democratic advancement.

Iran, we must realize, remains a hostile player in our domestic politics. The past sympathies the Islamic Republic shored up within our political landscape, as well as its campaigns of disinformation through its many media arms and, of course, the anti-western rhetoric its NGOs have catered to attest to the potency of Iran’s influence and its ability to do us harm.

Iran’s values, we must remember, are antithetical to our own and yet its apologists are many, most particularly among antisemitic and conspiratorial circles where its worldviews and bigotry are espoused.

The danger, today, is that those dynamics will be weaponized further.

The writer is a research fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society.