ARAB NEWS, 5 January 2018-- On Tuesday, with Iran’s nationwide unrest entering its seventh day, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei weighed in for the first time. Predictably, he blamed “enemies” of the Islamic Republic for instigating and directing activities in upward of 60 cities. Khamenei is correct in the sense that the vast majority of Iranians are hostile to his theocratic regime.
Unlike the Green Movement in 2009, the past week’s demonstrations started with disenfranchized peoples outside Tehran, including those in rural towns traditionally considered to be conservative strongholds. This confirms that regime change is the popular demand of the Iranian people as a whole, not just of the intellectual elites who enjoy the most contact with social networks.
As such, in the words of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Khamenei’s claim of foreign manipulation is “complete nonsense.” She characterized the spontaneous and geographically expansive demonstrations as “the precise picture of a long-oppressed people rising up against their dictators.”
Haley’s remarks initiated the push for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC). By that time, Khamenei had stepped forward with his predictable effort to discredit the popular slogans that included bold calls for his resignation. The regime’s response had already resulted in more than 20 deaths and hundreds of arrests.
The Trump administration is rightly concerned about the probable escalation of the crackdown, especially after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced its deployment to three provinces that had been particular hotbeds of activity.
The IRGC was instrumental in the violent suppression of the Green Movement. Its domestic power has grown since, and its influence over Iran’s judiciary has allowed the IRGC to predetermine the outcomes of cases it initiates against political activists.
Tehran’s Revolutionary Court has already declared that death penalties could await those arrested. The head of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, has termed the uprising “the new sedition,” thus connecting it to the “sedition” of 2009 and, by extension, to its violent fate, with dozens killed and some participants still in prison nearly a decade later.
The US has a responsibility to outline a policy that will actually support the autonomous calls for freedom and democracy, including providing protesters with access to the Internet and other means of communication.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
But it is important to note that the Green Movement suffered that fate against a backdrop of international silence. Fortunately, the Trump administration has made several statements supporting the Iranian people, without lending credence to the ridiculous claims about the demonstrations’ foreign origins. Indeed, far from intervening directly, the White House has so far offered little to the protesters other than expressions of moral support.
This is certainly important as it helps keep global attention focused on Tehran’s response, potentially forestalling severe crackdowns that might otherwise be condemned only after the fact. But the US also has a responsibility to outline a policy that will actually support the autonomous calls for freedom and democracy, including providing protesters with access to the Internet and other means of communication. And it must do so quickly.
A UNSC meeting would represent an opportunity to showcase such a policy, which should include at a minimum serious, multinational efforts to deny Tehran the tools to halt the flow of information within the country or out of it. Western governments must do everything in their power to counter Tehran’s attempts to control the narrative, such the IRGC’s claim that only 15,000 people have participated nationwide.
If foreign broadcasts do not vigorously address such fabrications, this is the only narrative that the people will hear. In the past week, the Iranian people and opposition have demonstrated that information is a powerful weapon, using smartphones to organize protests that nobody had seen coming. The US and its allies could provide tremendous support to the Iranian people simply by helping to ensure that these resources remain available to them.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business.