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Iranians cannot solely rely on protests to end regime

Anti-Iranian regime protests have stepped up in recent weeks (Image: Middle East Institute)

I last wrote about Iran in August when the country appeared to be on the verge of signing a fresh nuclear deal, which aimed to ease the world's fears that it would develop devastating weapons. Three months on and that deal is still yet to be finalised; probably because the negotiators are wondering what next for Iran, as its regime faces an uncertain future.

Let's trace back to 16th September, where 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was doing what any unassuming human would do on a typical day - minding her own business and being herself. That was until the so-called 'morality' police noticed that her headscarf was out of place and before long, her life was to end in almost a flash. Her death was shocking, but sadly not the first in the hands of a regime that thrives on toxicity and tension when things don't go its way. Amini's passing has led to widespread protests; even greater than what we'd seen in recent months and years. While Iranians abroad had always voiced their anger towards the Islamic Republic, very few of us had expected Iranians in Iran to voice their anger as much as we've seen for the past ten or more weeks. The Iranian people have endured 43 years of ill-treatment from the regime, now they've reached breaking point.

As a half-Iranian, looking to build a Cymranian community, I've been following recent events closely, and I understand why people privately have asked why I've not attended any protests or voiced a strong opinion against the regime. Quite honestly, my emotions are wide ranging and I'd wanted to see where the narrative was headed before I gather my thoughts. So, let me try and articulate where my head is at here, and why it's important that we move forward, to get the truly desired outcome.

I may have sounded rather corporate just then (I apologise, I work in public relations and qualified in public affairs). Yet, since September, I don't get the impression that things have changed much. The protests outcomes have been consistent, repetitive and have left some feeling absolutely helpless. Consistent, because the messaging is clear - people in Iran (men and women) want the basic freedoms, to live without fear - and Iranians abroad are behind them all the way. Repetitive because the narrative has refused to budge, and that is largely down to the fact that there is little room to offer longstanding solutions. Protests can only take a movement so far, and I don't know many that have provided a genuinely desirable outcome.

It's a frustrating circle to run around because, while the protests are taking place across the globe, more innocent people are dying in the hands of the regime who's Supreme Leader has called anyone who dare defy them as 'rioters' and 'thugs'. Security has even been stepped up to protect Iranian journalists in London, due to the threat the regime poses. The Ayatollahs refuse to be triggered by protests closer to home and instead chooses to handle the crisis as it normally would - through intimidation and callousness. This may be what the regime wants, but we're at risk of seeing something that resembles a civil unrest - which we definitely want to avoid.

I even question the effectiveness of the United Nations' actions. In recent weeks, it's welcomed the likes of actress Nazanin Boniadi to address members on the situation in Iran and the country is now booted out of the Women's Convention. These gestures may sound significant to some but you can see why the Ayatollahs are shrugging their shoulders. They see these conventions as nothing more than tick boxing exercises. The same applies to fresh sanctions the UK and 'international partners' are imposing on the regime. Again, this will impact the people more than it would to the most powerful in Iran.

Future action needs to be meaningful and clear. Firstly, it's to acknowledge the removal of the Islamic Republic layer - essentially, firing the Ayatollahs. Then it's to ensure that the Iranian government is reformed, so that it can create laws without influence from bigger cheeses. This has been an issue even before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the Shah overruled the government on anything. The people of Iran cannot call for change alone, so will need trusted allies who can offer them a vision that they would be happy to sign up to.

From what I can see, there are two names in particular raising their profiles which is great for them, but they're also making Iranians in Iran very nervous - the first name is Maryam Rajavi. She, along with her husband (who has been missing since 2003) were part of the Revolution which led to Ayatollah Khomeini taking over Iran 43 years ago. Her party, MEK was once deemed a 'terrorist organisation' to the US and UK governments (among others), yet, it hasn't stopped Rajavi from speaking in front of influential figures in Germany and Canada. "She doesn't represent us," cry many Iranians on social media. It speaks volumes when her own Twitter account doesn't permit users to respond to her tweets - it's ironic that she's advocating for free speech, but not when people want to communicate with her.

The other leading name is Reza Pahlavi, whose father was the last Shah before 1979. The Pahlavi's making a comeback may appear like a brightening prospect to some who still support the Iranian royal family, but to me, it's a bit like going back with an ex - we have to remember why we split up in the first place. However well-intentioned Reza sounds, his words will be in vain. At least he's not being supported by pro-Trump politicians like Rajavi, though he does have reported links with the Saudi regime.

Having a person or a politically-minded group to lead the charge for change is important because they should have a long-term strategy to benefit the people of Iran. As they are short of this, I'm struggling to call the latest protests a 'Revolution'. I can see why many say that it is, because that is the end goal. But sadly, we're not quite close to this reality. Rajavi and Pahlavi have too much baggage to even think about a political comeback in the Middle East. You wonder if someone like Mir-Hossein Mousavi (who led the 'Green movement' of 2009) can play a role in this charge. He's been under house arrest for over a decade. Yes, he's 80 years of age, but age hasn't stopped most of the elderly Ayatollahs to rule, has it? But again, does he have too much baggage?

If none of the names I mentioned appeal, then Iranians need to find a shining light who can call for that change and lead when the opportunity arises. It's either that or Iran could face being another Myanmar, where a military coup in 2021 controversially dumped Aung San Suu Kyi out of power. It certainly sounds plausible and is something Mousavi has called for. And like the Iranian military is accused of killing hundreds of innocent people in recent weeks, the Myanmar military had killed thousands of Muslim Rohingyas

Kyi had to give evidence in the Hague defending her officials, and could yet land in hot water over it, something the Ayatollahs may need to do if an international law is found to have been broken. Of course, it wasn't that which saw Kyi overthrown; her country's military found anti-corruption laws she alleged to have broken, so she had to go. Iranians will be wary of seeing change that hastily, even if they are keen to get rid of this regime as soon as possible.

What may assure the Iranians in Iran is that the unrest is echoing across the Ayatollahs ally countries. In Russia, there is growing civil angst from those against Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Men are refusing to fight and because Russia is losing ground in the war, many (who hadn't before) are wondering what the point of the last year was. In China, the government is enduring unprecedented opposition to its approach to Covid-19 restrictions. Despite President Xi winning an historic election earlier this autumn, it will mean diddlysquat if his hard line strategy on the pandemic continues to inconvenience their people when they know that the rest of the world is living in relative normality. A weakened Putin and Xi spells disaster for Ayatollah Khamenei and his folks.

What can also be disastrous for the Iranian regime is for the UK and other Western nations to take the unrest in Iran genuinely seriously. Direct sanctions are useless, so instead, why not disrupt the Ayatollahs' support networks? It can start by dismantling terrorist groups Iran funds - these countries focused so much on tackling Daesh and al-Qaeda in recent years, why not Hamas and Hezbollah, who are at the heart of the Israel and Palestine conflict? The Palestinians deserve better than terrorist presence around, and Western countries need to do more to support them as they are Israelis. 

More generally, I'm surprised that the EU nations and UK are quiet on the Iranian protests. If they want to lower net migration, they'll know to focus on how to best support those in countries where unrest is taking place. It's almost as if their foreign offices feel that, by not getting involved in complicated international affairs, they can have a quieter life.

The future of Iran can go in many different directions, and the consequences of its future is significant - but whichever way the country heads, it needs to be right. It cannot go wrong the second time. But to achieve the right results, it requires an international effort. Politicians abroad cannot afford to rely on the Iranian people, both in Iran and abroad, to do the shouting and expect different results each time. It's a long slog, but the Iranians will get what they want. 

In the meantime, I hope that Iranians can still support those who matter, such as the national football team. We can't suddenly stop supporting them because it's trendy to do so - we supported them through all the other World Cups and the regime was just as brutal then as it is now. Us not supporting the team will only strengthen the Ayatollahs' belief that their people are the 'enemies' and could only make matters unimaginably worse.


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