Alireza Nader is a senior fellow focusing on Iran and U.S. policy in the Middle East at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The death of Qassem Soleimani was depicted by the regime in Iran as a national tragedy mourned by the entire country. Videos of massive crowds grieving for Gen. Soleimani were depicted by Western media as proof that the Trump administration’s killing of the infamous general had united Iranians under the flag of an otherwise hated regime.
But the downing of a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran and the ensuing nationwide protests pose a major challenge to this narrative. The shooting down of Flight 752 has convinced many Iranians, if they were ever doubtful, that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime, including its so-called elected institutions, cares little for their lives.
Canada can no longer stick with its old policy of inaction in light of such aggression. It’s time to side with Iranians’ struggle for freedom and dignity by designating the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization and adopting a policy similar to the “maximum pressure” policy pursued by the U.S. The killing of Canadians on that Ukraine International Airlines plane makes the adoption of a tougher policy by Ottawa more urgent than ever.
Many Iranians may have been outraged at the killing of Gen. Soleimani by a foreign power. Many more are angry at their own security forces killing Iranians with impunity. The following few weeks and months are likely to see even bigger demonstrations and acts of bravery by citizens seeking to overthrow 40 years of tyranny. The Western world, especially Canada, has a strategic and moral duty to support Iranians’ struggle for freedom.
Gen. Soleimani was the No. 2 man in the regime. He was Mr. Khamenei’s most trusted, loyal and favoured adviser and was widely admired (and feared) by the various proxies he commanded across the Middle East. Many ordinary Iranians no doubt saw him as a hero for defeating the Islamic State and expanding Iran’s influence across the region.
His death was mourned by many regime supporters; despite widespread opposition to its rule, the Khamenei regime still commands a significant base of loyalists and can quickly mobilize its supporters and employees, numbering millions, to take to the streets. But Gen. Soleimani was also a hated symbol of state repression and instigator of widespread human suffering. His Revolutionary Guards were responsible for massacring more than 1,500 unarmed Iranians during mass protests this November. Millions of Iranians loathed him but feared expressing their hatred. Those who wanted to mourn him were free to do so. Those who wanted to celebrate his death could not.
But the destruction of the Ukrainian airliner has energized many Iranians to openly challenge the regime, which failed to close Iranian air space to civilian airliners despite a heightened state of tension after Gen. Soleimani’s death.
Tehran’s incompetence and utter disregard for human life provided further proof that Iranians are not citizens but rather “hostages” in their own country, as popular Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti said on Instagram, and several anchors on regime-controlled television have resigned in shame for spreading lies. The November protests were largely a working-class phenomenon triggered by a massive spike in fuel prices, whereas the past few days of protest have featured students and middle-class Iranians outraged at the death of well-educated and professionally accomplished fellow citizens on the doomed plane. The universities, often a hotbed of resistance and a driver of political change in Iran, have exploded in protest.
The public’s ire is not fixed on Mr. Khamenei or the Guards alone. It is also directed at President Hassan Rouhani, often depicted in the West as a relative moderate, despite his reported involvement in suppressing the November protests.
Tehran can no longer resort to the false “moderate versus hardliner” dichotomy it has used to co-opt students and the middle and upper classes. The November massacre and the airline tragedy have shown Iranians that the “moderates” in office differ little from the unelected hard-liners that wield deadly power.
The regime’s legitimacy has been decimated; the majority of Iranians will have little faith in the upcoming February parliamentary elections. Why vote for “reformists” when it will only perpetuate state repression? Rather, many Iranians, especially the urban middle classes, are likely to see the regime’s overthrow as the only way to save their country from repression and economic ruin. And, critically, the combination of working-class and middle-class grievances could result in the kind of mass protests not seen since the 2009 Green uprising.
The world can no longer close its eyes to the suffering of the Iranian people. The November protests, the killing of Gen. Soleimani and the airline tragedy have captured the world’s attention and increased global scrutiny and criticism of the regime. The large number of Iranian-Canadians killed aboard Flight 752 should toughen Ottawa’s policy toward the Islamic Republic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rightly condemned the regime, but actions speak louder than words.
Mr. Trudeau should classify the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, as recommended by a 2018 motion passed by Parliament. Ottawa should also investigate the regime’s network of supporters and advocates who have taken root in the largely antiregime Iranian-Canadian community.
The Islamic Republic will continue to kill Iranians and cause reckless collateral damage as long as it exists. Iranians have demonstrated that they want the regime gone forever. It’s time for Canada, a democracy, to support freedom for Iran and stand on the right side of history.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.