Over the past few weeks, thousands of Iranians from throughout the country came into the streets, calling for regime change. While the world in general has gotten the message, i.e., that Iranians do not want the mullahs, there are still some false assumptions about the movement that could lead to wrong policy measures. Here are five of the most important.
It is true that the unrest began with economic demands and frustration about corruption at all levels of the government, but the foremost causes are not economic, which is why the unrest quickly morphed into full-blown anti-government protests. Even a cursory look at the videos on social media confirms that the demands are strictly political, specifically nothing less than regime change.
The current wave of protests is not unique. The impetus behind this unrest is the same as that behind the protests in 2009, 1999, the early 1990s, and the early 1980s. While each of these movements had its own starting point, i.e., fraudulent elections in 2009, the student movement in 1999, and so on, the main reason has remained the same: the Iranian dissident majority striving for freedom and democracy. In fact, it is by now an established pattern for anti-government protests that they start whenever Iranians get a chance to take to the streets, even after a soccer game or death of a celebrity.
Iranian protesters do not lack an organized resistance movement. The pro-regime lobbyists have tried hard to make the case that the current unrest is a temporary, sporadic phenomenon doomed to fail. In fact, Iranians have an organized resistance movement that has withstood four decades of the regime’s brutalities. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and its main component, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), represent the voice of Iran’s dissident majority, and their fight for freedom and democracy. Actually, it has been the organizing power of the MEK and its widespread network of supporters inside and outside Iran that has enabled the quick turn of each and every Iranian gathering into an anti-government protest.
Nationalism is a core principle of Iranian culture, but that does not mean that Iranian protesters do not need the support of the leaders of the Free World. Nationalism has been used time and again by the pro-regime lobbyists to warn western policymakers against openly backing Iranian protesters, supposedly because it would be interpreted as meddling. That is simply not true. Faced with the brutal oppression of the mullahs’ regime, the Iranian dissident majority has always needed the moral and material support of the Free World.
In fact, Iranians clearly expressed that need in one of their most famous slogans during the 2009 protests: “Obama, Obama, you are either with them (the regime) or with us (the people of Iran).” Unfortunately, the Obama administration was so enthralled with the prospect of a nuclear deal that it even decided against preventing Hezbollah from smuggling drugs into the US to avoid upsetting the mullahs. Obama was “with them” in 2009, and America’s inaction was perceived as a greenlight by the regime for its massive crackdown on the protesters. This time around, the regime has so far been hesitant about using full force against the dissidents, obviously because President Trump and other world leaders have declared their support for the Iranian people.
Moral support is necessary, but not enough. While President Trump’s supportive messages are encouraging, they are not all that the leader of the world’s greatest democracy can do. America needs to take the additional step of recognizing the organized opposition as the true representative of the Iranian people. Why? First, because siding with Iranian freedom fighters is in the interest of the United States. A free and democratic Iran will be the best ally of the US and the free world, and a nightmare for Islamic extremists in the region. Second, support for those who resist against tyrannical regimes reflects the core values upon which American was and is founded. Third, recognition of the Iranian Resistance as representing the Iranian people and the will of the Iranian nation is essentially acknowledging a matter of fact. Fourth, while recognition of the Iranian Resistance has no financial, economic, or military burden for the United States, this strongest message of support for the brave men and women inside Iran fighting for freedom also sends their tyrannical rulers the strongest message possible.
It is time for bold action, in Iran and abroad, to bring real change to Iran and the region.
Article by Shahram Ahmadi Nasab Emran, M.D., M.A., Ph.D. (c), a doctoral candidate at Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Saint Louis University. He has participated in international policy forums, including the Policy Studies Organization’s annual Middle East Dialogue conferences, and has written for multiple Iranian news outlets.