Tehran's Dilemma in Trying to Have It Both Ways

To no one's surprise, the regime ruling Iran is watching the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, searching for a way to exploit the outcomes to its advantage. At the same time, Tehran is, and should be, worried about the images of falling dictators impacting on Iran's population, especially against the backdrop of the summer 2009 uprising.

While Ahmadinejad loudly criticizes Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for "killing his own people," he has been busy amassing his own suppressive forces to step up the killing of Iran's citizens.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei praised the developments in Egypt and Tunisia as an "Islamic Awakening." This is the same guy who, in June 2009, explicitly ordered the crackdown in which hundreds were killed.

So Tehran finds itself in a quandary: how to make "pro-freedom noises" while terrorizing its own citizens.

Iran's rulers have found their situation further complicated since the dissent against the rulers in the Arab world has spilled over to Iraq, where dozens of demonstrations have erupted in the past few weeks. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is believed to have kept his seat during the eight-month post-election battle due to Tehran's unequivocal support.

The large "Day of Rage" demonstrations on February 25th were followed by another nationwide demonstration on March 4th that extended from Baghdad to Basra and from Nineveh to Salaheddin.

"Liar, liar, Nuri al-Maliki," protesters were heard shouting in Baghdad. "We have elected you to protect us and not to kill us," one banner said; some carried banners reading, "where is the oil money going Maliki?"

The demonstrators defied security checkpoints and a vehicle ban, walking for hours to the heart of the capital in a show of force against the increasingly fragile government of Maliki. Iraqis are calling for an end to corruption, shortages of jobs, food, power and water and most importantly the lack of freedom. A week before, security forces killed several people and wounded many others in several cities throughout Iraq.

Let's hope Al-Maliki doesn't use his mentors' playbook to quell the unrest in the coming weeks, as the protesters have promised to come back. When there was a call for protests in Iran on February 14th, Tehran's rulers readied themselves to confront all dissent. A command headquarters was formed, and an additional 60,000 agents deployed to Tehran to assist the regular security forces in enforcing the ban on protests.

According to reports, the Vali Amr Corps was assigned to protect Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's offices. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) stationed 46,000 of its forces in 184 battalions of the Mohammad Corps in various parts of Tehran. The Seyyedolshohada Corps was responsible solely to maintain control of Azadi ("Freedom") Square and the surrounding areas. The State Security Force brought in 4,000 of its agents from various cities.

There were even 1,500 members of Lebanese Hezbollah added to the operational forces of the regime.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands confronted the regime's suppressive forces. Parliamentary members lined up in the Majlis, not to conduct legislative business, but to march around in circles, calling for the execution of dissidents. The demonstrations have continued ever since; more protests are expected in the coming weeks."

In a rant reminiscent of Gaddafi, Tehran rulers blamed the murder of the protesters on the main organized Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The outlandish accusation only underscored the ruling regime's paranoia about the group, especially since three MEK members have been hanged in January and December for their participation in the uprising.

The recent demonstrations in Iran underscored several key points:

  1. Supreme Leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei has become the unrivaled target of the protesters. He and the Velayat-e Faqih system he represents were the focus of their chants, such as "Mubarak (in Egypt) and Ben Ali (in Tunisia), now it is turn for Seyed Ali."
  2. The public hangings of the past few months have failed to put down dissent, instead, they have further inspired people to dare to take to the streets again. The 2009 uprising is not dead and the regime remains extremely vulnerable.
  3. The demonstrators demand regime change, especially in light of the transitions throughout the region. High profile opposition politicians are left with two choices; either go with the people's demand, or be left behind.

At the end of the day, dictators reach a fork in the road, where they must choose between submitting to the will of their people or bloody violence. Ben Ali and Mubarak chose to back down. At this writing, Gaddafi has chosen otherwise. Al-Maliki, too, must soon decide where he wants to stand.

And of course, Khamenei must make the choice in Iran. Either way, the impact on the whole region will be enormous.