The Iranian regime is claiming that the latest spasm of street protests is dying down, with President Hassan Rouhani declaring a “victory” for the Islamic Republic. Skepticism is in order: The regime has not yet fully lifted its near-total clampdown on the internet, suggesting it still fears that news of the protests — along with images and video — will spread at home, and attract more attention abroad.
Other signs of nervousness in Tehran abound. Officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Rouhani himself, have been blaming the protests on “mercenaries” and “enemies” — the regime’s shorthand for the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia — and the government is releasing videos of pro-regime rallies. The protests are being portrayed in the official media as riots. Even the scant information that has escaped the internet blackout shows that the government has unleashed its security apparatus upon the protesters; scores have been killed, hundreds have been jailed.
Another tell of the regime’s sense of panic: It has rounded up dual-nationals, in part to underline the narrative of a foreign hand in the protests, but also to stock up on hostages for future bargaining with Western governments.
These are the regime’s standard deflection tactics when challenged. We’ve seen them before: In the late 1980s, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini needed a distraction from the humiliation of the Iran-Iraq war; in 1999, when Khamenei was spooked by nationwide student protests; and again in 2009, when election fraud by the regime brought the Green Movement to the streets.
Add the revolution of 1979, and it is impossible to escape the metronomic frequency of upheaval every 10 years.
The regime’s history of suppression and dissimulation is well known to the Iranians participating in the protests — indeed, the government has assiduously cultivated the perception of cruelty to cow its citizenry. Iranians who are not gunned down in the street face years of inhuman treatment by the regime’s well-practiced cadres of torturers and rapists.
After the 1999 protests were quelled, senior regime figures pronounced that the students would receive no mercy. One cleric stood out for the relish he took in threatening that they would be “tried and punished for fighting God and sowing corruption on earth” — offenses that, under Iranian law, carry the death penalty.
That cleric was Hassan Rouhani.
So the Iranians protesting against Rouhani and his boss, Khamenei, are showing extraordinary courage against long odds. Having come this far, and knowing the consequences of failure, many will feel they have little to lose from staying the course — better to die in the street than endure the horrors of the regime’s prisons.
What can the world do to protect them? So far, the crackdown on protests has received only bromides from the United Nations, and mealy-mouthed pronouncements of solidarity from the Trump administration.
Expecting more may seem unrealistic, given the regime’s disregard for international opinion. Remember, Western governments have been unable to prevent the torture, rape and murder of their own nationals by Khamenei’s thugs.
But the U.S. and European governments can and should impose sanctions on regime officials who encourage, endorse or inflict harm on the protesters, making it clear that they will not be allowed to whitewash their crimes, as Rouhani has.
They should also open their doors, offering sanctuary to any protesters who are able to escape the country, and encourage Iran’s neighbors — Turkey, Iraq, the Gulf Arab states, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia — to offer them safe passage.
If the regime is simply lying about its “victory,” it won’t hurt the protesters to know that world has their back, even if to a limited extent. If Rouhani is right, and the regime is indeed prevailing, these incredibly brave women and men must have the opportunity to live and fight another day. Hopefully, they won’t have to wait another 10 years for the next opportunity.