By Majid Rafizadeh
November 20, 2019
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, on Sunday weighed in regarding the latest protests in the capital Tehran and dozens of other Iranian cities.
Predictably, Khamenei sought to blame “thugs” and “enemies” of the Islamic Republic for instigating and directing the activities in upwards of 60 cities and towns. Khamenei said on state television: “The counter-revolution and Iran’s enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so. Unfortunately some problems were caused, a number of people lost their lives and some centers were destroyed.”
Khamenei stepped forward with his usual efforts to discredit the popular slogans, which included bold chants such as “death to the dictator.” The regime’s response has reportedly already resulted in more than 10 deaths and hundreds of arrests. The ayatollah’s modus operandi has always been anchored in evading accountability and deflecting attention by pointing a finger at “enemies.”
In addition, Khamenei’s decision to deliver a speech so soon after the protests started was aimed at preventing Iran’s parliament from holding discussions to find ways to reverse last week’s decision to hike gas prices. The Iranian lawmakers were supposed to meet early this week in a bid to push the government to revise its decision.
From Khamenei’s perspective, concession means weakness. That is why he is refusing to back down despite the calls of two well-known and authoritative grand ayatollahs, Safi Golpayegani and Alavi Gorgani, for the government to reverse the price rise.
When such widespread protests erupt in Iran, the international community must strongly express its concerns about the subsequent crackdown, especially after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) enters provinces that are hotbeds of anti-government activities. It may be recalled that the IRGC was instrumental in the violent suppression of the nationwide protests of late 2018.
The IRGC’s domestic power continues to grow, and its outsized influence over the Iranian judiciary has allowed it to effectively predetermine the outcomes of cases it initiates against political and human rights activists. Iran’s Revolutionary Court is also known to impose fear among the public by declaring that death penalties could be waiting for those who are arrested for protesting in opposition to the government.
During such crises in Iran, the international community must push for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in order to address the brutal suppression of civilians. The agenda for such a meeting would represent an opportunity to showcase a policy that should include, as a minimum, serious multinational efforts to deny the Iranian regime the tools to halt the flow of information within the country or out of it.
International powers must also issue statements of support for the Iranian people. The US has made several such statements, all without lending credence to the ridiculous claims about the foreign origins of the demonstrations. In a statement issued on Sunday, the White House press secretary said: “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators. Tehran has fanatically pursued nuclear weapons and missile programs, and supported terrorism, turning a proud nation into another cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people.”
However, far from intervening directly, the US has so far offered little to the protesters other than expressions of moral support. This is certainly important, as it helps to keep the world’s attention focused on the Iranian government’s response, potentially forestalling the severe crackdowns that might otherwise be condemned only after the fact. But the US and other global powers have a responsibility to outline a policy that will actually support the calls for freedom and democracy in Iran.
This policy should include offering internet access and other means of communication to the protesters. This must happen quickly. In order to prevent the people from organizing, protesting and sharing news, the Iranian regime quickly utilizes its tactic of cutting off modes of communication by various means, such as shutting down all internet access in the country.
By shutting down the internet, the Iranian leaders are attempting to manipulate the narrative. That is why Western governments must do everything in their power to counter the regime’s claims that the protests are not widespread and that only “thugs” have participated. Foreign broadcasts ought to vigorously address such fabrications — otherwise, these are the only narratives that the people will hear. In a manner of speaking, information is a powerful weapon in and of itself.
The US and its allies could provide tremendous support for the Iranian people simply by helping to make sure that resources such as the internet remain available to them. In this way, the protests will remain what they have always been: A true expression of the Iranian people’s demands for democracy and freedom.