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Lessons from the Iranian protests

Feb 20, 2023 | AIJAC staff

The Iranian regime has been releasing some of the thousands of political prisoners arrested during the recent anti-regime protests. But the world should recognise that this is not a genuine change of heart, but a ruse, according to the author. (Image: Shutterstock, Novikov Aleksey)
The Iranian regime has been releasing some of the thousands of political prisoners arrested during the recent anti-regime protests. But the world should recognise that this is not a genuine change of heart, but a ruse, according to the author. (Image: Shutterstock, Novikov Aleksey)

Update 02/23 #03

This Update features some new pieces drawing policy lessons from the protest movement which has rocked Iran since mid-September last year, when Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for wearing her headscarf “improperly”,  was killed in the custody of the country’s morality police, sparking widespread outrage.

Our first contributor is Jason Rezaian, talking about Iranian regime gestures such as the recent release of some imprisoned protestors. This is a subject on which the Washington Post reporter can speak with some authority, having been held by the regime on bogus espionage charges for more than 500 days between 2014 and 2016. He points out clear evidence that the current ostensible loosening of restrictions by the regime is a ruse that the world should ignore – including a case where the regime released a prominent human rights activist, only to immediately put her husband in prison. For Rezaian’s take on the real nature of the Islamic regime in Iran, CLICK HERE. Rezaian also had a good recent piece on the horrors of the Iranian regime’s justice system, and its use of exemplary executions.

Next up are US-based Iran experts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, who note that one lesson from the protest movement is that diplomatic fears of an Iranian “nationalist backlash” to tough international pressure have been debunked. They say it is now clear that the ruling Mullahs have so alienated the Iranian people through their repression and mismanagement that there is little chance that any Western measures, including military strikes, would cause Iranians to “rally round the flag” and support the Islamic regime. Instead, they note, Western punishment of the regime would likely only stoke anger toward it – if Washington and its allies could only recognise Teheran’s vulnerabilities in this respect. For this important call for a rethink of Western attitudes toward pressure on Iran in the wake of the protest movement,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, German parliamentarian and foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen draws some conclusions based on the Iranian protest movement from a European perspective. He says Europeans have not always understood what is at stake in Iran, and, while only the Iranian people can overthrow the regime, Europe needs to show more clarity and determination in taking their side. He particularly criticises the reluctance to add the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)- the regime’s main centre of power – to terrorism lists, as well as naive hopes that the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, which the regime has clearly rejected, can be reinstated. For his lessons from the protests in Europe – many of which are also appropriate to Australia,  CLICK HERE.

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Iranians aren’t fooled by the regime’s ruse. You shouldn’t be either.

By Jason RezaianWashington Post, February 15, 2023 

Iran’s freedom movement isn’t faltering, but the price some of its most committed figures are being forced to pay is becoming increasingly steep.

The Islamic republic has been feigning to ease repression by releasing large numbers of prisoners arrested during recent protests against the regime. But it’s a ruse. In reality, authorities are doubling down on personally targeting individuals who have long records of standing up for basic human rights.

Human rights lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh is once again among the prime targets. In and out of prison since 2010 and currently on medical furlough, Sotoudeh received the State Department’s Global Human Rights Defender award earlier this month.

Last week, she gave an exclusive interview to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, calling for the release of her friend, the hunger-striking activist Farhad Meysami. Graphic images of his emaciated body circulated broadly on social media. Meysami’s alleged crime was advocating women’s rights and protesting both the compulsory hijab and the use of the death penalty — demands that in any normal society would never be answered with such harsh reprisals.

Clearly responding to a public shocked by the photos and spurred on by Sotoudeh’s eloquence, Iranian authorities released Meysami.

But the story doesn’t end there. It never does.

On Monday, Iran’s judiciary announced that Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, must report to prison on Sunday to begin serving a six-year sentence issued by the country’s revolutionary court in 2019 — on charges nearly identical to the ones for which Meysami had been serving time.

Iranians are not fooled by this shell game. But that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Iranian authorities want to make their brutality conspicuous and obvious. It sends a clear message about the strict limits on dissent they are intent on enforcing.

And the seemingly haphazard way in which Khandan’s 2019 sentence is now being enforced is also no accident.

“A person who is subject to a sentence that has not been enforced constantly feels the heavy shadow of the sentence, knowing they must eventually return to prison,” Khandan told me via email. “This condition makes time feel particularly long and stifling.”

That this kind of abuse is directed at such honorable and decent people as Sotoudeh and Khandan makes the Iranian regime’s behavior all the more repugnant. I first met this family nearly a decade ago in their home in Tehran on the afternoon Sotoudeh was released from prison for the first time. Their children were still very small, and they have grown up to be no less committed to the cause of building a more decent Iran than their brave parents.


A banner in Marseille calling for the liberation of Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. The regime has just released her, only to jail her husband Reza Khandan instead. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

The harassment the couple have faced has ranged from extended stays in prison to more subtle tactics — the freezing of family bank accounts, interrogation of their then-teenage daughter, and exit bans despite having preapproval for travel.

Sotoudeh told me she wants people to know that “neither the world nor Iran has been emptied of women and men who stand for their humanitarian beliefs and are willing to assume the danger to do so, even at the expense of their lives.”

For his part, Khandan is ultimately at peace, despite the horrors that might await him. “Farhad [Meysami] and I were sentenced to six years for producing pins that said ‘We are opposed to compulsory hijab,’ ” he said. “But now that I look back on the past, it’s heartwarming to know that our efforts, and that of others, regarding compulsory hijab have borne fruit so quickly and effectively through the ‘woman, life, freedom’ movement.”

Despite their brave and principled stance in support of basic rights, ultimately, Sotoudeh and Khandan are a middle-aged couple who deserve to live in peace.

“As Reza’s wife, I also wish to hold onto my last ray of hope that this sentence will not be carried out,” Sotoudeh told me. “What do such sentences achieve for the regime?”

Whether Khandan is ultimately forced to report to prison, as is being demanded, I have no doubt this couple will continue their noble resistance. None of the repressive measures, standard fare for the paranoid and petty Islamic republic, have deterred them, for one very simple reason: They know they are right.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016. 


Iranian Nationalists Reject the Regime

 

It‘s no longer true that a Western military strike would lend the theocracy stronger domestic support.

By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh

Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13, 2023


Western diplomats, such as those who negotiated the JCPOA nuclear agreement, have long argued that punishing Iran would only lead to a backlash in terms of Iranian nationalism. If that was ever true, it is certainly not the case today, Gerecht and Takeyh argue. (Photo: 506 collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

In Washington’s liberal foreign-policy circles, it has long been accepted that any significant foreign military action against Iran would be counterproductive. Iranian nationalism would kick into gear, turning opponents of the regime into angry patriots. Iranian hard-liners would become more recalcitrant, foreclosing the possibility of reform. But 44 years after the Islamic revolution, it’s no longer true that Iranian nationalists support the status quo. In fact, they seem to oppose it.

The passage of time hasn’t been kind to Iran’s theocracy. The mullahs have done much to anger the Iranian people since 1979 and little to win them over. The ruling clergy have always clashed with and sought to quash the Islamic Republic’s limited democracy, which initially lent the government considerable domestic political legitimacy and popular support. As democracy died, and with it the possibility of internal reform, protests grew in size and number. Systemic corruption, a dismal economic record, extraordinary managerial incompetence during the Covid pandemic, and a foreign policy whose costs are more obvious than its benefits have alienated Iranians.

Iran was a semi-Westernized country in 1979. The revolution interrupted that process but didn’t stop it. By forcing religion into everything, theocracies often drive the societies they govern to secularize. Iranians have become more enamored of Western ideas such as basic rights and representative government—and less guilty about borrowing from the West. This is especially true of women, as has been evident in the most recent nationwide demonstrations triggered by the death of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the morality police. The demonstrations have also brought out Iranians of all social classes, indicating that opposition is widespread.

Longtime loyal lieutenants of the Islamic revolution now ruminate loudly about the split between Iranian society and the state. Senior clerics express fears about growing secularism and a fallen faith. The website of former President Hassan Rouhani, who supported crushing the student-led reform movement in 1999, is filled with criticism of the current government of Ibrahim Raisi and, by implication, the overlordship of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Former prime minister and failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was a leader of the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 and has been under house arrest since 2011, now explicitly calls for the abolition of the constitution, which empowers the theocrats.

It’s unlikely that a Western military response would heal this divide, in great part because of the public’s deep disgust for Iran’s ruling theocracy. Confronted with an increasingly hostile domestic audience, the regime has sought to create militant believers abroad. Wherever the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can gain traction, it tries to plant mini-Lebanese Hezbollahs. But these efforts have met pushback, even in majority-Shiite regions.

The Revolutionary Guard wanted to incorporate Syria into the “resistance front,” a regime term for anti-American and anti-Zionist proxies and allies. Instead, Israeli air power has continuously destroyed Iranian bases in Syria, laying bare the Islamic Republic’s weakness and killing a significant number of Iranians and Arab Shiite allies. The clerical regime has struggled to find any means to retaliate, which likely emboldened Jerusalem to strike inside Iran itself. Israeli agents have assassinated nuclear scientists and stolen from the regime’s nuclear archives. The Israelis have even started to blow things up—reportedly most recently a facility at a military base in Isfahan likely connected to the development of drones and missiles.

Afraid of escalation and probably deeply ashamed by the Zionists’ ability to penetrate Iran’s defenses, the clerical regime has offered a muted response. More damning, the public seems indifferent to Israel’s intrusions. At the dawn of the revolution, even into the 1990s, such actions likely would have provoked massive demonstrations with little government orchestration. Today the regime distrusts any large gathering for fear it will quickly veer off in an ugly anticlerical direction.


Poverty on the streets of Teheran: The Iranian people blame their economic plight on the regime – not the West or sanctions (Photo: Shutterstock, saeediex)

On the streets, Iranians blame their economic plight on their leaders—not the U.S. and its sanctions. Iranians haven’t protested Israel’s actions in Syria; on university campuses and social media they have harangued officials for making Iran party to a bloodbath. Nationwide, protesters chant against money being sent to Islamist causes they care nothing about. Drones for Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine no doubt will soon join this list.

Far from quelling Iranians’ anger with the regime, a U.S. military response would likely stoke it further. All the theocracy has left to keep its citizens at bay is haybat, the fear of insuperable power, which American military action would only damage. Intellectually sensitive to the forces arrayed against him, Mr. Khamenei surely knows that he can’t afford a fight with a superpower—or even a protracted clash with Israel—at a time of vast popular unrest. Paradoxically, Tehran is at its most vulnerable while Washington is at its most reticent.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Iran’s revolution of freedom

Germany should increase its support for Iranian protesters by pushing the EU to list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation

Norbert Röttgen


Iranians and their supporters demonstrate “for freedom and against the terror of the Islamic regime” in Berlin. (Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo)

European Council on Foreign Relations, Feb. 6, 2023

A revolution is underway in Iran. A revolution started by women who have managed to win over almost the entire nation to their cause. They fight fearlessly for freedom and against the terror of the Islamic regime, which has oppressed the largely secular population for 44 years now. Freedom or terror – this is what the Iranian revolution is about.

The regime has recognised the gravity of the situation and has taken up the fight for its own political survival. In the process, it has committed acts of extreme brutality. Imprisonment, torture, rape, and murder are the order of the day. By spreading fear and terror, the regime is trying to suppress the protests. But the Iranians have overcome their fear. They know that their protest and the attention it generates around the world is their best defence against the regime’s violence. So, even as regime brutality has reduced the number of large-scale protests in many regions, demonstrations continue in some provinces such as Baluchistan where people take to the streets every Friday. More broadly, the revolution persists in new, oftentimes very creative forms of resistance.

The people of Iran are aware that only they can overthrow the regime. But with support from other nations including tough sanctions and isolation of the regime, the revolution can make faster progress. So, Iranians rightly expect Europe and Germany to do more than the bare minimum when they themselves are putting their lives in danger.

That reasonable expectation leads me to the crucial question: have we in Germany and Europe really understood what is at stake in Iran? Does the German coalition government realise that a successful revolution would be a world-shaking event in the most positive sense imaginable? The Iranian protesters’ efforts could free millions of people from oppression and allow them to lead self-determined lives for the first time in many generations. But that’s not all: the consequences would go far beyond Iran. A successful revolution would be a beacon of hope for those who continue to live in fear and would demonstrate that democratic change is possible. The dynamics of the entire region would change for the better and the prospects for negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran would revive.

German foreign policy could be part of this development by taking the side of the Iranian people with clarity and determination. But the German government has largely remained silent. It took the foreign minister days to comment on the killing of Jina Mahsa Amini. Since then, the foreign ministry has initiated a resolution condemning Iran in the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is all right and good, but as of now has had little concrete impact. What really matters is attention from the international community and tough sanctions against the regime. It’s not enough to offer condolences every other week after yet another execution or to point the finger at others who are said to be blocking the effort to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation within the European Union. Germany has weight in the EU and can achieve a lot through active commitment. But instead of fighting for the EU to list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, the German foreign ministry has made the listing more difficult by issuing incorrect statements on the legal conditions for such a measure.

During parliamentary question time in November, I asked the minister of state in the foreign ministry, Katja Keul, whether the government was committed to listing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation in the EU. One could easily have answered this question with a simple yes. Instead, Keul presented an inaccurate description of the legal technicalities of the issue, according to which investigations or a conviction of the IRGC for acts of terrorism in the EU would be necessary. In 2017, the European Court of Justice clarified that investigations and convictions from non-EU states can also be used to justify a terror listing in the EU. When asked, the foreign ministry confirmed this position. So, if it wants a terror listing of the IRGC, as it claims, then why is it deliberately and repeatedly causing confusion by citing prerequisites that do not exist in law?


German MP Norbert Röttgen: “The IRGC is the regime’s centre of power. It controls almost everything in Iran. Putting it on the EU’s terror list would therefore assign responsibility for the terror conducted in Iran and around the globe” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Putting the IRGC on the EU’s terror list is one of the main demands by the people in Iran and the diaspora towards the EU. The IRGC is the regime’s centre of power. It controls almost everything in Iran. Putting it on the EU’s terror list would therefore assign responsibility for the terror conducted in Iran and around the globe to the regime and would help block financial flows to a criminal organisation. But the EU has so far shied away from taking this step.

Such a listing is perceived as a red line in Tehran and would imply a clear break with the regime. As a consequence, reviving the Iranian nuclear deal and continuing negotiations on limiting Iranian nuclear development would become close to impossible. But it is an illusion to assume that the nuclear deal still has a future while the current Iranian regime remains in place. The regime clearly rejected the last proposal by the United States in September 2022 and there is no reason to believe that Tehran has changed its mind on this. But in order to leave the door open to a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, the EU has opted for a path of sanctioning a small number of individuals who are generally not very important to the regime. The entire leadership has so far remained unsanctioned. These sanctions do not substantially hurt or antagonise the regime. By failing to put the IRGC on the terror list during the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in January, the EU demonstrated its unwillingness to fundamentally change its approach toward the regime. It gifted the mullahs a propaganda coup and caused serious disappointment among the protesters. What the EU is so far doing in support of the brave women and men in Iran is not enough! It is the absolute face-saving minimum. The bitter truth is, despite all the verbal assurances, that the EU is waiting to see how the revolution will play out and only then will it dare to pick sides.

Norbert Röttgen is Co-chair of ECFR’s Council and a Member of the Bundestag. 

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