Iran’s smoldering fuse in 1979 and again in 2018

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Surging crowds thronged the streets of Tehran and cities across Iran screaming Death to the Shah, Death to America. A situation brewing for a few years reached its boiling point with the return of an obscure Ayatollah from exile. The old order collapsed as the mob triumphed, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from Paris, and darkness descended across the land.

Those chaotic events between late 1978 and February 1979 jolted the Middle East.

The Iran revolution of 1979 brought to power the radical Islamist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Iran revolution of 1979 brought to power the radical Islamist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Recent demonstrations which rocked Iran offered a curious deja vu for those of us who painfully recall 1979. This time though the Islamic Republic regime as well as the mainstream media pundits were caught totally off guard when cities across Iran exploded in largely peaceful but doggedly passionate demonstrations.

Contrary to 1979, where seething political opposition triggered the violent revolt, in 2018 the protestors opposed massive corruption, economic shortages, and trashed symbols of a venal clerical regime out of touch with a frustrated largely young population.

Global reaction to the demonstrations was cautious; with few exceptions. The United States called for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the percolating political situation inside Iran.

American Amb. Nikki Haley, despite the misgivings of many delegations, led the rhetorical charge in the Council, “Let there be no doubt whatsoever: the United States stands unapologetically with those in Iran who seek freedom for themselves, prosperity for their families, and dignity for their nation. We will not be quiet.”

Amb. Haley added poignantly, “Once again, the people of Iran are rising up. They are asking for something that no government can legitimately deny them: their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Britain’s delegate Matthew Rycroft stated, “The United Kingdom’s concerns about the human rights situation in Iran extend beyond the recent treatment of protestors.” While declaring “The Iranian people represent an ancient and important civilization that has a rightful place in the modern world, with a modern economy. But too often Iran’s security interests are pursued in a way that destabilizes, and at times directly threatens others, supports terrorism and distorts the Iranian economy.”

He cited “Iranian assistance to groups in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq” which are stoking the embers of ongoing conflicts.

Sadly most other countries on the Council while expressing “concern” over the disturbances didn’t wish to rock the boat to directly chastise the Tehran regime.

Teheran’s delegate went so far as to crudely claim that the U.S. was not only behind the protests but added “there is a long history of U.S. bullying at the UN” to support such a meeting.

Let’s face it, many countries, especially the Europeans don’t want to jeopardize cosy commercial relations with the Islamic Republic especially in the wake of the lifted economic sanctions in 2015. Countries view Iran and its oil wealth and huge domestic market as a potential golden goose; thus the tepid condemnation of Tehran.

For the USA, Iran remains a raw geopolitical nerve. During the Shah’s reign, Iran stood as a regional pillar of Mideast stability for U.S. and Western interests. We know what later happened after radical Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Indeed the Islamic Republic of Iran ruined a reformist, modernizing and secular Iran creating an authoritarian theocracy which rules to this day.

Briefly in 2009 after a blatantly rigged presidential election, there was a massive popular uprising in the capital Teheran which opposed entrenched political corruption. What was dubbed the Green revolution tragically lost momentum after the Obama Administration’s pathetic inaction towards the pro-democracy movement.

In late 2017 protesters reemerged but with a different agenda. As the adage goes, “It’s the Economy stupid. “ And in the Islamic Republic’s case we see a potentially prosperous country marinated in corruption and mismanagement. The conflict is often presented as a tug of war between the clerical hardliners of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the so-called reformist President Hassan Rouhani.

Alas, the crisis goes much deeper and to the core of Iran’s expensive waste of blood and treasure in supporting terrorist surrogates such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Yemen’s rebels, and Iranian militias fighting in Syria’s civil war.

The Islamic Republic of Iran remains a regressive and repressive regime rooted in clerical incompetence and civil corruption. Thus far over 25 protesters have died, with mass arrests of over 3,700 people, mostly students, a predictable crackdown on social media, and a mobilization of pro-regime elements which seem to have temporarily quelled the protests.

Revolutionary Guard hardliners claim to have bottled the genie of dissent, at least for now. Yet, as deep social and economic resentments smolder, could a Persian Spring be in the future?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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