Why Did Last Year’s Protest Movement in Iran Fail?

“This mullah is causing problems for you, and for me and for all of us. Do you want me to take care of the problem?” Saddam Hussein, military dictator of Iraq, asked Mohammad Reza Shah in August 1978. He was speaking about Ruhollah Khomeini, a senior cleric who had settled in Najaf and for months had been calling for regime change. The Shah declined Saddam’s offer to assassinate the Ayatollah. It was one of a few critical decisions which would help turn a fledgling, fractured opposition movement into a revolution.

Forty-four years on, another opposition movement has emerged, but this one failed to bring about the changes it and the diaspora demanded. On the one-year anniversary of the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police, many are asking why the protest movement—the largest in nearly four decades—failed to bring about the changes it demanded and the revolution the diaspora called for against the supreme leader and the Islamic Republic regime (nezam). What we should be asking, instead, is why the regime succeeded, and to understand this, we turn to the lessons of the fall of the Shah.

Lesson 1: Act decisively and don’t waver.

There is some debate within the scholarship about when, precisely, the protests against the Shah began. What is clear is that by 1978, decades of simmering discontent erupted onto the streets and into open calls for the overthrow of the regime. The Shah, who had ruled the country since the end of World War II, was caught off-guard. He was dismayed by his people’s “ungratefulness.” As he lamented later during his exile, “ingratitude is the prerogative of the people.”

More than anything, he was distressed by the Carter administration’s new human rights focused policy that decried the track record of the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK. If he was to strengthen the relationship between Iran and its security guarantor, he needed to tread carefully. Imprisoning people and harassing Iranian dissidents were actions inconsistent with President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy agenda. To elevate his stature as a modernizing leader, the Shah had to abide by the standards of the “free world.”

Although his advisors pleaded for decisive, kinetic action against the protests and the people and organizations leading them, the Shah did the opposite. He tried to reason with his opposition, making overtures to its leaders and allowing their organizing and agitating to continue. And when that didn’t work, he took to television and read a speech, now known by the fateful line “I heard the voice of revolution,” where he admitted to the system’s corruption and injustices and promised to crack down on corruption. The failure of the military government to bring order back to the country coupled with massive arrests of the Shah’s loyal servants by the military government, including Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, only brought further disarray within the regime.

The leader of today’s Islamic Republic regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shows little such hesitancy in cracking down on opposition activity. This is because he does not have the same restrictions on action, nor incentives to provide space for the peaceful expression of dissent. Unlike the Shah’s Imperial Iran, the Islamic Republic has no trade or diplomatic relations with the United States, and its relations with other liberal democracies are fraught. In fact, it frequently accuses human rights activists and journalists of working for the United States to bring down the regime. Its patrons, namely Russia and China, have dismal human rights records. Cut off from much of the international economy, it is the most heavily sanctioned nation in the world along with Venezuela. This isolation has, perversely, made the regime more inclined to violence and repression of speech and liberty.

Learning from experience, observation of other autocracies facing popular unrest, and the lessons of the “Islamic” revolution, the state has refused to entertain the protesters’ calls for change. Instead, it hardened its grip on women and civil society, introducing new, draconian chastity measures and closing down businesses that did not enforce existing hijab law. Instead of seeking to quell the demonstrations, they moved to quash them. Which brings us to the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Fight like your life and livelihood depends upon it (because it does).

In the last months of the Shah’s reign in late 1978, the military was given the task of bringing order to the country. But as the opposition grew more united, the military was unable to stop the unrest. There are a number of reasons for this, including that the Artesh (military) was a fighting force and not a law enforcement agency. Its advanced weapon systems had no use on the streets of Tehran or other major cities. Plus, while the officer corps remained mostly loyal to the Shah and stayed at their posts, this was not so for the enlisted men and the draftees—a group which did not enjoy the advantages of the officer corps. They turned against the Shah, disobeying orders and defecting in droves. And after an enlisted soldier massacred a group of officers at the officer’s mess, even the Shah’s own Imperial Guard could not be counted on.

The situation with the Shah’s army stands in contrast with the Islamic Republic’s security forces which, with the exception of rare defections among the junior officers in the military, have remained loyal to the Supreme Leader. In fact, agents of the IRGC and Basij, the groups tasked with cracking down on the protests, have been carrying out their orders to the letter. Such forces are well funded and resourced, with the IRGC’s budget set to increase by 28 percent for the next fiscal year.

Unlike the Shah’s commanders, who had the option of fleeing the country when things went south, the Islamic Republic’s security forces have no such escape route. Most of them are under human rights sanctions. The IRGC have been designated a terrorist group. Their options for disobeying commands and defecting are limited. In short, institutions that are charged protecting the nezam have every reason to remain loyal to it.

Lesson 3: Control the media, control the masses. 

In 1973, the Shah established the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT), the only legal source of TV and radio broadcasts in the country. The agency was, in theory, one of his greatest assets for controlling the narrative of anti-regime protests that erupted years later. The secret police took full advantage of NIRT, using it spread false and misleading information and stage on-screen “confessions” similar the forced confessions we see today.

But the Shah’s hold on the organization proved tenuous. Ultimately, NIRT staff abandoned their posts and joined other public sector walk-outs. Then on Feb. 11, 1979, revolutionaries stormed the headquarters and took to the airwaves to declare their victory.

As bad as they were, SAVAK’s activities in the media sphere were nothing compared to that of the present regime, which uses television and other media to manipulate people, playing on emotion and intrigue and mudding the facts. In the Amini demonstrations, the state portrayed (and still does) protesters in provinces with large ethnic minorities as “terrorists” and “separatists.” It spreads lies on social media, using old and fake footage to denigrate female protesters and claim massive public support for its rule.

The most important weapon in the Islamic Republic’s communications arsenal, however, is a feat of technology beyond the greatest imaginings of the Shah, or any dictator of his time. It is the National Information Network (NIN). Modeled on the intranets of Russia and China, NIN is a system of digital authoritarianism designed to give the state the ability to control what people see, how they communicate, and the choices they make. From 2012 to 2019 to today, NIN has improved with each round of protests, its abilities tested and refined in the caldron of public dissent. It comes as no surprise then, that when protests first broke out across the country in September, the state-imposed internet slowdowns and blocked major communication apps like Instagram and WhatsApp. It began “digital curfews” that made it almost impossible to communicate effectively with the outside world.

Recent reports point to additional advances. The regime can now manipulate the information space at a granular level, directing mobile internet carriers in particularly restive or threatening provinces to cut service entirely. These localized blackouts are strategic, corresponding with anniversaries and days of mourning. Technologists observed widespread internet outages on July 15, for example, the day the morality police returned to the streets after they were quietly removed for several months. The regime’s ambitions on the technology front have only increased. Officials tout advanced biosurveillance technology and databases, while recently hacked documents reveal plans to “segregate” the internet.

Ultimately, the Shah lost his battle with the opposition and fled the country, his decisions creating the conditions for the regime’s downfall. Khamenei seems to have learned the lesson of this history and incorporated it into the regime’s approach to the protests that ensued in the aftermath of Amini’s tragic death.

But others can learn from this history as well. Obviously, ruthless methods like targeted assassinations and organized brutality should be beyond the pale. But for the protesters, Iranian history shows that the opposition must have a defined leadership. It must take away the state’s monopoly on force by encouraging defections from the armed services. It must undermine and even dismantle the state’s broadcast media monopoly and the national internet. And it must never stop.

For the international community, in light of history and our observations of this regime’s tactics and strategies, there are lessons to be learned as well. The United States must end ineffective economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, and work to counteract the perverse incentives for the security services to commit atrocities. The international community as a whole must empower the Iranian people with the communication technology and know-how not just pull back the electronic curtain that is NIN, but set it on fire.

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