Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
It’s almost half a year since protests erupted in Iran over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old woman murdered by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police.” They have swelled into the most serious challenge to the regime’s authority since it came to power in 1979. The disruption they’ve caused has begun to affect the economy – as oil and gas shortages, caused in part by strikes, bite.
The morality police have been withdrawn from the beat, at least for the moment, in certain major cities. The mass enforcement of religious dress has been halted, and women are now seen walking peaceably in normal clothes with their hair uncovered without harassment from government goons. A recent video from a shopping mall might as well have been shot in a mediterranean country such as Greece.
This is the first victory of the revolution whose slogan is Women. Life. Freedom. It’s forced the regime to acknowledge that the systematic enforcement of its religious oppression has become impossible. The old men with beards fulminate, but know their writ no longer runs.
Instead, they wreak vengeance on those they can catch. Perhaps 600 people, among them schoolgirls and schoolboys, have been killed by security forces. Unknown numbers, but probably in the tens of thousands have been jailed, tortured, raped and found dead. A few have officially been executed.
The sentences are designed to intimidate. Activists, journalists and film makers are singled out for punishment because they have large followings: Mojan Ilanloo, a documentary maker and women’s rights activist, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 74 lashes.
Dual nationals are rounded up to create the (unbelieved) fiction that the revolts have been stoked from outside. The most prominent was the Iranian-British former deputy defence minister, executed as a spy last weekend after a forced confession and, according to a leaked audiotape, 4,000 hours of torture. Javad Rouhi, another protester, so irked the authorities that he was sentenced to death three times.
Such savagery can work for a while, as Aleksandr Lukashenko knows (though he’s backed by tens of thousands of Russian troops, and Belarussian protesters have, unlike the Iranians, avoided violence against the security forces), but the jumpy regime has now begun to crack down even on critical parts of the elite. The 60-year-old daughter of former president Rafsanjani, Fazeh Rafsanjani, was arrested again, and this time sentenced to five years in prison.
The women’s revolution has shown its staying power and its appeal beyond discontented students to include ethnic minorities and oil workers. Seeing off the morality policy is just the beginning. Other aspects of the regime will be next. “Women. Life. Freedom” will be a permanent part of the Iranian political scene for the months or few years until the Supreme Leader, who is 87, becomes Man. Dead. Dictator.
His incapacity or death will open up a moment of confusion and anxiety that the regime’s many enemies will hope to exploit. Though the change itself will be internal, the international community can shape the environment in which it plays out.
Iran’s regime is in an advanced stage of decay. The fire and idealism have run out after 44 years, leaving it only corruption and violence to fall back on. It is at these moments that it becomes possible to divide the authorities.
The power structure includes many who realise time is running out and that it is no longer a matter of whether, but of when, it will no longer be able to enforce its authority over the media, civil society and the economic complexes controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. Their loyalty to the system is weak, and lasts largely because attempting to leave it is liable to land one in Evin prison.
Now is the time to start thinking about how a democratic Iran might come about, and how it could begin its integration into the global economy. This needs Western policy, which has been focused on the nuclear programme, to change.
A nuclear-first policy might have made sense when the prospect of political change was remote, but the strength of the women’s revolution changes the calculus. Democracy will take care of the nukes. As in Argentina and South Africa, a democratic Iran will have many more urgent things to spend its money on. Instead of offering economic opening in exchange for nuclear restraint (that the regime cheats on anyway), Western economic opening should be tied to the dismantling of the regime’s repressive apparatus.
The Helsinki accords that helped expand freedom in the Soviet Union and its satellites provide the model. Specific reductions in Iran’s international isolation need to be paired with specific increases in freedom, designed to weaken the regime’s ability to repress. Measures to open up internet access, release political prisoners, and allow inspections of prison conditions should be the first, and tied to equally specific financial concessions. A further stage could include oil industry technology, in exchange for allowing human rights organisations and newspapers to operate freely.
The regime is unlikely to agree to these concessions now, but that is not their point. They would be offered rather to concentrate the minds of the disillusioned within so they can see the benefits of taking steps towards a free Iran when the opportunities present themselves.
To avoid these overtures being mistaken for weakness, an outline of détente should be accompanied by tougher measures against the hardline regime itself. Classifying the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation is an obvious first step. Supplying Israel with more bunker-busting capabilities (needed in any campaign against Iran’s nuclear programme) could be another.
The regime’s officials would then know there could be a way out of their dead-end regime. If they don’t take it, the Iranian people will sooner, rather than later, provide them with a lamp-post on which to hang.