The first question is: Who are the protesters? As always, the regime’s analysis is that the protests are the result of conspiracies by the US which, with the departure of President Barack Obama — who sought accommodation with the present leadership in Tehran — is now committed to regime change under his successor Donald Trump.
The regime’s analysis is too childish to merit detailed rebuttal, suffice it to say that while the Trump administration may favor regime change, it has — so far at least — done absolutely nothing to move in that direction. In any case, if regime change were as easy as merely desiring it, the US would have achieved it in Cuba and North Korea long ago.
Four decades after the mullahs seized power, Tehran must stop acting as a vehicle for a bankrupt ‘revolution’ and once again become a nation-state behaving like a country. That requires regime change.
The US, and in different contexts other major powers, can help prolong the life of a regime by bestowing on it legitimacy it does not deserve and giving it the economic and political sustenance it needs to survive. This is what the Nixon-Ford administration did vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and what the Obama administration did for Iran between 2009 and 2017 — a policy still pursued by the EU.
But short of full-scale invasion and conquest, no outside power, no matter how great, can bring down a regime that enjoys a measure of domestic support and enough self-confidence to hang on against heavy odds. Regime change is the work of the people of each country concerned; outsiders can only help by not propping up the oppressors.
If this not an American conspiracy, who is protesting in Iran? The answer is: People who are unhappy with their lot. As far as I have been able to make out, the protests — in almost all of Iran’s provinces — have been spearheaded by young, educated, mostly middle-class men and women with the aim of airing their grievances against a system that is perceived as a failure in all domains.
Some grievances are economic in nature. Mass unemployment is a major issue, with 25 percent of university students unable to find a job for up to four years after graduation. Officially the unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent, but in major urban areas it is often much higher. Then there is inflation, at around 13 percent per annum, eating into the meager incomes of average families.
To make matters worse, there is rampant corruption and embezzlement on an industrial scale. In 2017 alone, five banks and investment funds collapsed, wiping out the savings of at least 2.5 million middle-class and lower-middle-class families. Since the failed institutions were controlled by prominent mullahs and/or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), their failure is seen as a failure of the system.
The collapse of several pension funds, including that of teachers, has compounded the effects of the corruption scandal. Interestingly, no one has been arrested in connection with any of those failures, with those believed to be responsible allowed to flee to exile in Canada. But the protests show it is impossible to divide issues into purely economic and purely political. All issues in any society are ultimately political, because policies affect all walks of life.
For example, exempting so many banks and pension funds from rules of transparency and legal accountability, with the excuse that they are controlled by top mullahs or the IRGC, is based on a political decision. The fact that Iran churns out hundreds of thousands of degree-holding men and women with little or no marketable skills is also the fruit of a political decision.
The protests also reveal a remarkable understanding by ordinary people of the huge cost of a misguided foreign policy that has turned Iran into a partner in crimes committed by tyrants in Syria and terrorists in Lebanon and Yemen. Iran has no interest in helping Bashar Assad slaughter the Syrian people, or Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah play mamluk in Beirut.
One slogan repeated throughout the protests is a call for the release of all political prisoners. The fact that for almost four decades Iran has been the world leader in terms of the number of political prisoners and runner-up for executions after China is also a political issue, not an economic one.
Is Iran heading for regime change? Over a decade ago, I reached the conclusion that only regime change can bring Iran out of the historic impasse created by the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors.
I reached that conclusion, explained in detail in the book “The Persian Night,” not because I did not like the Khomeinist regime, which I certainly do not. Nor was it because I thought the regime was any worse than its allies in North Korea, Venezuela or Zimbabwe. My argument was based on the belief that the regime, good or bad, simply does not work. This is exactly the conclusion that many within the regime have also reached.
Until recently, some within the regime or in its outer reaches believed that regime change might be avoided through change within the regime. But years of experimenting with that concept, under presidents Mohammed Khatami and more recently Hassan Rouhani, have shown that the Khomeinist regime lacks any mechanism for reform and change from within. For Iran, regime change is the wisest, most prudent and least costly option.
This does not mean I am predicting regime change in Tehran from now until the Iranian new year in March. All I am saying is if Iranians want their country to leave the ranks of losers and oppressed nations, they need a new and better regime of their own choosing. To foreign powers dreaming of accommodation with Iran, I say: Abandon that illusion. A regime that has problems with its own people is bound to have problems with other nations.
Four decades after the mullahs seized power, Iran must stop acting as a vehicle for a bankrupt “revolution” and once again become a nation-state behaving like a country. That requires regime change.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.