This is an extraordinary volatile moment in Iran, packed with peril and promise. At no other time this century has the Islamic regime’s hold on power been so thin and vulnerable. Never have protesters and dissidents had such a claim to legitimacy, and never have the state’s attempts to crush and discredit them been so likely to backfire.
Unlike in 2009, when protesters were simply trying to reverse a clearly fabricated election result – and could be imprisoned as partisan traitors – the demonstrations that have escalated since 2017 and peaked this month have a larger cause, the basic corruption and incompetence of the government, including the President’s admission that the state had killed 179 innocent people on an airliner, that few Iranians would disagree with.
At some point, popular disgust with this system is going to boil over into a genuine democratic revolution.
And it should be obvious to anyone who knows a bit about Iran and its history that this is a good moment for Western politicians to shut up. What Iranian dissidents and protesters need least now – the one thing that genuinely could destroy the credibility and effectiveness of their cause – is the backing and support of politicians from the United States and its allies.
Yet here we are: U.S. President Donald Trump and former prime minister Stephen Harper are among the voices doing all they can to associate the kids on the streets of Tehran with foreign governments and organizations that Iranians fear as much as their government.
Worse, many of those politicians are dragging in the two organizations that are most capable of destroying the credibility of the movement.
The first is the Pahlavi family. They are the descendants of the late Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled with a bloody U.S.-backed brutality for four decades until the 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew him. The Shah’s heir, Reza Pahlavi, has a generously funded lobbying outfit in Washington.
In recent days, Mr. Pahlavi has been especially outspoken at U.S. think tanks, TV channels and social-media outfits and, presumably, within the corridors of the White House, making the case for a transition to multiparty democracy. He says he has no ambitions to power himself.
There’s one problem: He and his family are hated in Iran. Almost every older Iranian has either a dark memory of the repression and torture of the Shah’s decades, or of the humiliating experience of being a U.S. Cold War client state whose embarrassingly inept leader only held power because Washington had installed him. There is no significant constituency in Iran who want a return to those days.
The other is the People’s Mujahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). This Marxist-Islamic militia tends to deal with Western countries through its front organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Originally a rival anti-Shah movement that violently opposed the Ayatollah Khomenei’s revolution, the MEK lost any support it had among Iranians in the 1980s, when it sided with Saddam Hussein’s genocidal military in the Iran-Iraq war.
The Canadian and U.S. governments had officially designated the MEK a terrorist organization for years, until their lobbying persuaded Ottawa and Washington to drop the label in 2012. Today, it is a well-funded organization, often described by scholars and experts as a “cult."
In July, former prime minister Stephen Harper travelled to the MEK’s headquarters in rural Albania to give another enthusiastic speech not just in favour of democratic change in Iran, but also endorsing the MEK itself. A large part of the audience consisted of identically dressed young women assembled in neat rows and responding in unison.
He, along with some unsavoury characters such as Trump acolytes Rudy Giuliani and Stephen Bannon, has become one of the public faces of an organization that is apparently viewed by most adult Iranians as both domestic traitors and murderers and as a foreign proxy army bent on reimposing U.S. control of Iran.
So when Mr. Harper chose this week to speak up, in TV interviews, in favour of change in Iran, he wasn’t just playing that old game of trying to undercut the careful words of the sitting prime minister – he was helping discredit the mass movement happening right now in Iran by associating it with the things Iranians most fear in regime change.
Why do politicians insist on butting in this way, when they ought to know their presence will hurt protesters? Some say it’s financial influence, or ideological naivete. It seems to me that it is a more basic politician’s impulse: ego gratification. They want to be heroes in a resistance movement, like an earlier generation was in 1989. But this is not Europe in 1989, and those politicians are talking their way to the wrong side of history.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.