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Don't Forget Iran

There are many reasons to be skeptical that the Middle East is on the cusp of democratic transformation. But if that is the case, it's worth recalling that not every communist state in Europe was overturned in 1989.
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Watching this new video produced by the human rights NGO Iran 180, I was struck by Congressman Barney Frank's pithy summation of what good governance involves. "No government ought to consider itself threatened by its citizens wanting to express themselves," Frank said. "And no truly popular government need worry about that."

Frank was addressing the Iranian people, but his remarks are applicable to Egypt too. And they stand out in marked contrast to this next item, so excruciating that a word like "hypocrisy" simply falls short as a descriptor. I refer to the specter of Ali Larijani, the sinister speaker of the Iranian parliament and one of the architects of the country's nuclear program, waxing poetically on the upheavals whipping through the Arab world. "The revolution of the noble," was his pronouncement on the surge of people power in Tunisia and Egypt. In similarly florid style, Larijani's colleague, Foreign Minister Ali Salehi, chimed in that Egyptians could look forward to the "resurrection of their glory."

The protesters in Egypt can probably do without such encomiums from the Iranians, while those citizens bravely confronting the anti-western Arab regimes -- that of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, that of the Ba'athist Assad dynasty in Damascus -- shouldn't expect them to begin with. For Iran's experience over the last three decades contains three sobering lessons for the wider region.

Firstly, that revolutions which incubate the impulses of liberal democracy alongside social and religious conservatism are easily subverted. Secondly, that successor regimes can be just as brutal as their predecessors; and as Zimbabwe under Mugabe shows, this phenomenon is not confined to the Middle East alone. Thirdly, that like their predecessors, successor regimes with no democratic legitimacy are similarly driven by the desire to remain in power at any cost.

Which brings me not to Cairo in 2011, but Tehran in 2009. After stealing an election he was widely predicted to lose, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced the wrath of the Iranian people. Using the social media tools that have defined the current wave of Arab protests, as well as a courageous willingness to confront the thuggish Revolutionary Guard, demonstrators flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities. As in Tunisia and Egypt, it quickly became clear that the fate of the regime would be decided by the sustainability of those protests.

As we now know, repression won the day, assisted by a lack of international leverage over the Iranian regime and the churlish reaction, ranging from indifference to hostility, in the surrounding Arab countries, including among opposition forces. "Noble, manly and humane," were the words chosen by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Mahdi Akif to describe Tehran's leaders in the year of the stolen election.

Since the passing of the country's revolutionary moment, the Iranian regime's grip has become a stranglehold. Always a world leader in the practice of execution, since 2009, the regime has accelerated the killing process. In 2010, between 18 and 25 people were executed each month. In the first month of 2011, a staggering 66 people were executed.

Gruesomely, while Larijani was lauding the Egyptian protestors, a dual Dutch-Iranian citizen, Zahra Bahrami, was dragged to the hangman's noose after being arrested for participating in the 2009 protests and then convicted on fabricated charges of drug smuggling. Meanwhile, those who escape the death sentence, like the journalist and human rights advocate Navid Khanjani, are being battered by heavy prison sentences and monetary penalties.

Iran, then, offers a glimpse of what might lie in store for Egypt. Abbas Milani, the highly regarded Iranian historian, revisited the broken pledges of Iran's theocrats in an article for The New Republic: "More than once, [Ayatollah Khomeini] promised that not a single cleric would hold a position of power in the future government. But once in power, he created the current clerical despotism. And when, in June 2009, three million people took to the streets of Tehran to protest decades of oppression, they were brutally suppressed."

There are many reasons to be skeptical that the Middle East is on the cusp of democratic transformation akin to eastern Europe in 1989. But if that is the case, it's worth recalling that not every communist state in Europe was overturned; Belarus doggedly remains as the continent's last dictatorship. Iranians should not share the same fate just because, as Barney Frank might put it, they are faced with a regime "threatened by its citizens wanting to express themselves."

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