For more than a week now, Iran has been in something of turmoil with crowds of various sizes holding protests in more than 30 cities including the capital Tehran. Thanks to scenes not seen in Iran since 2009 when the regime managed to put down a popular uprising in Tehran, many questions have been raised about what is euphemistically referred to as “the events”.
The first question is: Who are the protesters? As always, the regime’s analysis is that the protests are the result of conspiracies by the United States which, with the departure of President Barack Obama who sought accommodation with the present leadership in Tehran, is now committed to regime change under President Donald Trump.
The regime’s analysis is too childish to merit detailed rebuttal. Suffice it to say that while the Trump administration may like regime change in Iran it has, so far at least, done absolutely nothing to move in that direction. In any case, if regime change were as easy as merely desiring it the US would have achieved changes of regime in Cuba and North Korea long ago.
The US and, in different contexts, other major powers can help prolong the life of a regime by bestowing on it the legitimacy it does not deserve and providing it with the economic and political sustenance it needs to survive. This is what the Nixon-Ford administration did vis-vis the moribund Soviet Union in the 1970s.
And this is what the Obama administration did for the Islamic Republic between 2009 and 2017, a policy still pursued by the European Union. However, short of full-scale invasion and conquest, no outside power, no matter how great, can bring down a regime that enjoys a measure of domestic support and enough self-confidence to hang on against heavy odds.
To be sure, every now and then major powers are dragged into regime change conspiracies but often end up betting on horses that also run at best. Regime change is the work of the people of each country concerned; outsiders can only help by not propping up the oppressors.
But if this not an “American conspiracy”, who is protesting in Iran? The answer is: people who are unhappy with their lot.
If Iranians want their country to leave the ranks of losers and oppressed nations, they need a new and better regime of their own choosingAmir Taheri
As far as I have been able to make out of the protests which concerned almost all of Iran’s provinces, they were spearheaded by young, educated, mostly middle-class men and women with the aim of airing their grievances against a system that is perceived as a failure in all domains.
Some grievances are economic in nature. Mass unemployment is a big issue with 25 percent of university students unable to find a job for up to four years after graduation. Officially the rate of unemployment hovers around 12 percent, yet when we come to major urban areas the rate is often much higher. Then there is inflation, at around 13 percent per annum, eating into the meager incomes of average families.
To make matters worse there is rampant corruption and embezzlement on an industrial scale. In 2017 alone, five banks and investment funds collapsed, wiping out the savings of at least 2.5 million middle-class and lower-middle-class families. Since the failed institutions were controlled by prominent mullahs and/or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), their failure is seen as a failure of the system.
The collapse of several pension funds, including that of the teachers, has compounded the effects of the corruption scandal. Interestingly, no one has been arrested in connection with any of those failures with those believed to be responsible; allowed to flee to exile in Canada.
However, the protests showed it is impossible to divide issues into purely economic and purely political. In fact, all issues in any society are ultimately political because policies affect all walks of life.
For example, exempting so many banks and pension funds from rules of transparency and legal accountability with the excuse that they are controlled by top mullahs or the IRGC is based on a political decision. The fact that Iran churns out hundreds of thousands of degree-holding men and women with little or no marketable skills is also the fruit of a political decision.
The protest also revealed a remarkable understanding by “the ordinary people” of the huge cost of a misguided foreign policy that has turned Iran into a partner in crimes committed by tyrants in Syria and terrorists in Lebanon and Yemen. Iran has no interest in helping Bashar al-Assad slaughter the Syrian people or Hassan Nasrallah play Mameluke in Beirut.
One slogan repeated throughout the protests was a call for the release of all political prisoners. The fact that for almost four decades, the Islamic Republic has been the world's number-one in the number of political prisoners and number-two for executions after China is also a political, not an economic issue.
Is Iran heading for regime change? Over a decade ago that I reached the conclusion that only regime change can bring Iran out of the historic impasse created by Khomeini and his successors. Reaching that conclusion, explained in detail in the book “The Persian Night”, was not because I didn’t like the Khomeinist regime, which I certainly don’t.
Nor was it because I thought that the Khomeinist regime was any worse that its allies in North Korea, Venezuela or Zimbabwe. My argument was based on the belief that the Khomeinist regime, good or bad, simply doesn’t work. And this is exactly the conclusion that many within the regime have also reached. Until recently, some within the regime or in its outer reaches believed that regime change might be avoided through change within the regime.
But years of experimenting with that concept, under Presidents Muhammad Khatami and more recently Hassan Rouhani; have shown that the Khomeinist regime lacks any mechanism for reform and change from within. For Iran, regime change is the wisest, the most prudent and the least costly option. This does not mean that I am predicting regime change in Tehran from now until our Iranian New Year in March.
All I am saying is that if Iranians want their country to leave the ranks of losers and oppressed nations, they need a new and better regime of their own choosing. To foreign powers dreaming of accommodation with Iran, I say: abandon that illusion. A regime that has problems with its own people is bound to have problems with other nations.
Four decades after the mullahs seized power Iran must stop acting as a vehicle for a bankrupt “revolution” and re-became a nation-state behaving like a country. And that requires regime change.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.