Win or lose, Iranians want regime change


For the first time in nearly a decade, one dares to believe that the Islamist clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979 will not be in power by the time the 40th anniversary of their revolution rolls around in 2019. 

The nationwide protests are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, as evidenced in the slogans chanted by the demonstrators. They are also a rude antidote to the thinking of much of the Western establishment, which still clings to the notion that the reformers with whom they negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal are the key to Irans future prosperity.

We are, it seems, a long way from President Barack Obamas Nowruz message of 2009the first time an American leader referred officially to Iran as The Islamic Republic of…” and the prelude to his abandonment of the Green Movement one year later. That is ironic, really, because the aspirational politics of the new protest wave in Iran have a distinctly Obama-esque flavor. 

The vision being manifested on Irans streets would, in another context at least, sit very comfortably with the worldviews of American progressive Democrats or Europeans on the center-left. The protesters want state revenues to be spent on health, education and public infrastructure. Theyve had enough of corrupt, nepotistic government. They reject foreign wars outrightnot primarily out of sympathy for the victims of the regimes foreign adventures, but because the immediate demands of Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon have nothing to do with their immediate demands. 

Most of all, they are cynical about the promises of their rulers, regarding the categories of hardliners and moderates that are so routine in Western thinking as lazy constructs intended to paper over the evermore visible cracks in the Shia Islamic state and its official doctrine of velayat-e-faqih”—the guardianship of the jurists, a concept of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

What is at stake here, therefore, is an entire system of rule. Most tyrantsKhomeini in Iran, Lenin in Russia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuelabelieve themselves to be architects of new civilizations. By the time their revolutionary states start to rotrecent examples suggest their life span is anything from a decade to almost a centurythose founding fathers generally are no longer around to see the full consequences.

And yet, when you consider the near-term options for Iran, it seems far more likely that the mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps security establishment will push the country onto an even more illiberal, bellicose path than it is that these demonstrations will triumph. Vast numbers of Iraniansthose blurry figures we see whooping and cheering and chanting on the amateur video shared on social mediawish that the Islamic Republic would be buried. Sadly, that alone will not make it so.

Consider the experience of Irans close ally, Venezuela, whose people have made clear their rejection of the Bolivarian socialism instituted by Chavez in the heydays of high oil prices almost 20 years ago.

Chavezs successor, Nicholas Maduro, has imprisoned opposition leaders, attacked the free press, shut down the elected national assembly and replaced it with a tame impostor, and presided over a corruption-stained economic collapse that has resulted in malnutrition among the very same urban poor the Chavistas say they represent.

The depths of the misery that Venezuelans have become mired in were brutally illustrated on Christmas Eve in Caracas, when soldiers shot dead an 18-year-old pregnant woman in front of her husband. The couple had been standing in line with a larger group of people waiting to buy a scarce joint of porka traditional Venezuelan Christmas dishwho were ordered by the soldiers to disperse.

This is how the murderous regime treats the people, Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Delsa Solorzano tweeted after the shooting, expressing a sentiment that could have just as easily come from Iran. The sorrow of this man, whose wife and baby to be were killed by a bullet from the state, is Venezuelas sorrow.

Venezuela is instructive for another reasonlike Iran, it is another foreign crisis on which the Trump administration has completely reversed the policies of its predecessor. During the summer, President Donald Trump instituted stringent sanctions against several leading Venezuelan officials, accusing Maduro at the same time of running a dictatorship. Trump even suggested at one point that there might be a U.S. military option against Venezuelathough he later, probably wisely, backed off from that idea. 

Venezuela will have reminded Trump and those around him that the overthrow of tyrannies involves much more than targeted sanctions and words of condemnationhowever encouraging those are. More broadly, recent history should also remind him that not every confrontation with tyranny ends in success; the final overthrow of communism in 1990 was preceded by bloody, tragic failuresSoviet troops marching into Budapest and Prague, the repression of the Solidarity labor union in Poland, to name but two such eventsin the decades before. Iran may be in the middle of a similar cycle of history, which is why the handful of world governments who regard the demise of the Islamic Republic as a desirable end need to stay the course, however long it may take. 

Ben Cohen's weekly column is distributed by JNS.