Dennis Horak was Canada’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Head of Mission in Iran from 2009-12
The demonstrations currently rocking Iranian cities and the regime have once again raised hopes that change is coming to the Islamic Republic.
The millions of Iranians who took to the streets in the final weeks of 2019 have been re-energized by their outrage at the regime’s disregard for both human life and the truth in the wake of the accidental shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Efforts by the regime to deflect blame at the same time they were apologizing didn’t seem to resonate with Iranians in the way they likely hoped it would. Risking their liberty and their lives, protesters have again bravely demanded meaningful change in Iran.
Sadly, these protests are likely to end in very much the same way the previous ones have, with arrests, beatings and deaths in the streets of Iranian cities.
Long-time observers of Iran have seen all this before. Calls for the death of the Supreme Leader echo the chants of “Death to the Dictator” that permeated the Green Movement demonstrations in 2009 after disputed presidential elections. But many on Twitter and elsewhere see something different this time, especially coming so soon after the murderous crackdown (resulting, by some estimates, in 1,500 deaths) that ultimately ended the 2019 demonstrations.
Their anger, they contend, is much more visceral this time. The plane shoot-down and attempted cover-up embodied, in stark and deadly terms, everything that is wrong with the regime. It underscored the viciousness, incompetence and ingrained duplicity of the Islamic Republic and those who lead it.
All this is true, but some perspective is needed. Only a few short days before the airline tragedy, hundreds of thousands of Iranians – perhaps even millions – were in the streets mourning the death of General Qassem Soleimani and pledging their support for whatever the regime intended to avenge his death.
That is something people often forget when they see videos of anti-regime protesters. There are millions of Iranians who, despite the hardships they themselves also endure, continue to support the Islamic Republic, and they are ready to mobilize to defend it.
Iran is a divided country. There was likely little overlap between those who marched and died for change at the end of 2019 or who took to the streets again this week and those who mourned Soleimani’s death last week. But both have large constituencies in the country (with perhaps a large group in the middle who are equally disdainful of the regime but who are not prepared to call for its downfall – at least not yet).
Whatever their relative numbers or strength might be – and protest or march head counts aren’t always a reliable measure – regime supporters have behind them a range of state institutions and security forces ready, willing and able to do whatever is required to ensure the security of the regime and the system. Their ruthlessness has proven successful in quelling unrest throughout the life of the Islamic Republic, and there are few indications that this is likely to change.
There is no doubt that many Iranians have reached a breaking point. The economic hardships facing the country are severe. U.S. sanctions are a key factor in this. But decades of economic mismanagement, cronyism and regional political misadventures by the regime have been important contributing factors. Most Iranians know this. It has informed the views of those on the streets.
But most Iranians, even some of the most ardent regime opponents, fear revolution. There are few regional examples to inspire them, and their own history is, for many, a cautionary tale. As one Iranian friend put it to me in 2009 as the Green Movement demonstrations began to subside, “We want change, not a new revolution. The last one didn’t work out very well.”
But even managed change will be tough given the array of regime forces and institutions stacked against those demanding it. The Islamic Republic is resilient, and the leadership knows it can count on the support of millions if required.
There is little the outside world can do to facilitate change and that includes, especially, the U.S. President Trump’s tweets of support for the protesters, in fact, undercut rather than aid their efforts. They provide ammunition for the regime’s effort to taint these local, organic movements as foreign-led. In a society as divided and proud as Iran, it is a message that can resonate with fence-sitters who might be instrumental in tilting the scales for change.
We should hold the Iranian regime’s feet to the fire on its brutality toward protesters and other outrages, but at the end of the day, Iran’s many challenges need to be addressed and settled by Iranians.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.