Iranians' choice in the face of war

Signals that military action against Iran is a real danger have been multiplying over the past twelve months. Faced with external military intervention and internal repression, Arash Falasiri asks what course remains open to the Iranian people.

Although there are signs that the Islamic Republic of Iran might face military action by the United States and some of its allies, it seems the regime still refuses to alter its course. Instead of trying to ameliorate fragile socio-political conditions in the country, the state increasingly isolates itself on the world stage. Perhaps in reading this constellation of political signs, we may arrive at the conclusion that the Iranian state welcomes military threats from the West. To make sense of this, it is crucial to consider how the Islamic regime has entangled itself in such a fraught military and diplomatic web. 

Iran’s path to fundamentalist dictatorship is often traced back to the first months following the 1979 Revolution. What is certain, however, is that since the last presidential election in June 2009, the regime has demonstrated its nature more clearly than ever before. The juxtaposition of widespread social discontent and international pressure reveals the extent to which the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his few loyal sectors have become isolated, domestically and diplomatically. In replicating the rhetoric of Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, Khamenei demonstrates a certain inability to learn from the mistakes of his contemporaries. While Gaddafi accused the Libyan opposition of drug-addiction and allegiance to Al-Qaeda and al-Assad claims that Syrians are mislead by his enemies and Westerners, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards accuse the opposition of ignorance and treachery. 

Last week, in response to US allegations of an Iranian plot in Washington, Khamenei stated “we do not step back even for a moment.” Whether the US allegation against Iran is true or not and whether, as some experts suggest, this is the second phase of a coup d’état by the Revolutionary Guard to manipulate the socio-economic sector in Iran, one question remains valid: how can a regime that claims a participation rate of almost 90% in its last presidential election in June 2009 have lost its citizens’ support to such a great extent? Notwithstanding the brutal response of the paramilitary Basij and the Revolutionary Guard to the people’s questioning of the election result, further important factors indicate that the state is no longer in a stable position. 

Since 2009, the Islamic regime has responded with force to any type of demonstration, from silent political protests to those on socio-economic issues. Iran retains its world record for the highest rate of execution and imprisonment of journalists in the world. As Ahmed Shaheed, the UN human rights advisor, reported on 17 October that hundreds of Iranians have been sentenced to execution simply because of their pro-opposition thoughts and gestures, many without proper court hearings or access to lawyers. The UN report has accused Tehran of conducting more than 300 secret executions at just one of its prisons, Vakilabad, without the presence or knowledge of the detainees’ families or lawyers. 

Iran is also dealing with severe socio-economic issues. It is home to one of the largest number of drug addicts in the world. Simultaneously the Islamic parliament declares that the rate of inflation has reached its greatest height since the Revolution, at 20%, and the rate of unemployment is almost 22%. While these figures are taken from official statistics, many suggest that the actual numbers are much higher. 

It was for these reasons that opposition leaders, before they were detained last February, said that for the first time since the Revolution Iran was confronting a crisis gripping the entire regime and country. It seems that ever increasing socio-economic discontent on one hand and people’s exclusion from politics on the other have put the Islamic state in a very fragile position. The regime’s reaction, however, suggests no intent to revise its policies. Following the 2009 election, the Supreme Leader stated: “There might be few people who lost their faith to our Islamic state, but in relation to the number of new believers this is not an important issue.”

The regime demonstrates its ignorance in rejecting reformist Islamists’ demands for the release of political prisoners and journalists and in refusing popular participation. Two months ago Khamenei stated that “we do not embrace any elections in which the result may threaten the Islamic regime’s status,” and last month that “elections per se do not have any value for us.” In his latest speech last week, he mentioned that the state might need to reinstitute a prime ministerial position instead of a presidency if necessary, changing from a republican to parliamentary system. Although the main purpose of Iran’s 1979 Revolution was to transform the political structure from a monarchy to a republic, it now seems that Khamenei would save his power even at the cost of returning to the pre-Revolutionary monarchical structure, replacing the crown with a theocracy. The primary intention behind such a statement is obvious: to eliminate the people’s participation in their collective social and political destiny.

The actions of the regime in recent months have provided a unique opportunity for some to repeat their call to arms against Iran. Perhaps, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s claim of two years ago is now true: “The Islamic regime has not been more isolated as today”.  

There are more and more signs of impending military action. A few weeks after the emergence of the Arab Spring, French president Nikolas Sarkozy referred to Iran as a pro-terrorist regime, one which supports fundamentalists and anti-Western groups in the region. Sarkozy, for the first time, stated that Iran with its nuclear ambitions is the world’s primary security concern. He warned the Iranian government that they are running short of options and that military action might soon be the only way to solve the problem. Shortly after that, William Hague, British Foreign Secretary, reinforced Sarkozy’s stand, while The Guardian newspaper has reported on British preparations to take part in military strikes on Iran. Last September, Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defence, stated in an interview that “the Islamic regime’s existence is in its final stages and we will see its collapse soon.” He suggested that there is a great sense of dissatisfaction in the society, and thus a possibility of another green movement uprising against the state. Last week, French newspaper le Figaro released the conclusion of a secret report conducted by a group of French analysts suggesting that the Islamic regime is in its most fragile and isolated position both internally and externally. Meanwhile, the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), offered proof of the Iranian military’s nuclear ambitions. The report may lead most Western governments toward a general consensus regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  

A few months ago, Wikileaks released messages from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and some other Arab states to the US encouraging Western governments to take military action on Iran in order to end its potential nuclear threat. Now we have the US allegation of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington. Whether these claims are true or not is one question and whether the Islamic state can resist both internal and external pressure is another. 

When almost all Western powers supported Saddam Hussein during the eight year Iran-Iraq war, the Islamic regime relied on domestic support and Iranians’ devotion. With almost one million dead, the country was left in desolation. Two decades on, however, and some experts suggest that given Iran’s socio-economic situation the strength of such loyalties has weakened. Still, it is clear from the history of post-revolutionary Iran that the state has always appreciated the existence of an “enemy” as a means to excuse the brutal suppression of opposition. But, however the regime seeks to manipulate the current threat, this time it could prove fatal. 

There is little doubt that any military action threatens the progress that Iranian civil society has achieved so far. It seems that the Iranian people face many difficulties before they can attain an authentic sense of freedom, democracy and human rights. From one side they face a vicious regime whose doctrine is based on total suppression and from the other the threat of military operations endangers their hopes for change. 

Although it seems that the regime has lost its ability to realise its promises to its people, the Iranian opposition might still have an opportunity to demonstrate their courage and potential to confront to the state. It is only by demonstrating the possibility of change from within that Iran can escape the threat of military action. It is perhaps the only signal that Western countries and the warmongers inside and outside the country will listen to. To achieve democracy and dispel the world’s concern about nuclear proliferation, the Iranian opposition has no choice but to stand up against dictatorship. While the opposition seems to have limited time and opportunity, it could still play a key role in defining the fate of Iranians.​   

About the author

Arash Falasiri worked as a journalist in Iran for more than a decade. He won the national prize for the best journalist of the year in 2001. He is now a PhD candidate in Social and Political Thought at York University, Canada.