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Zehra Zaidi: The winds of change blow an unsteady course in Iran

Zehra_zaidi Zehra Zaidi was a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in South West England at last year's elections and has been a development consultant on governance and democratisation for UNICEF and the British Council. She has also acted as an adviser to Andrew Mitchell, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

As I write this, it is unclear what the future holds for Iran.  Internal politics in Iran are on a knife edge and internationally, the regime in Tehran is locked in a game of cat and mouse with the West over the extent of its nuclear enrichment programme.  Both issues are interlinked.  Western powers have been careful not to be seen as interfering in domestic Iranian politics to avoid jeopardising negotiations over the nuclear programme, as well as the groundswell of support in Iran for the reform movement. 

President Ahmadinejad and his allies, however, regard prolonged negotiations as a useful tool to silence critics of the increasingly repressive regime.  At the same time, the regime promotes the nuclear programme domestically in the hope that by restoring a sense of national pride and achievement, it will gloss over the increasingly acute economic problems of rising inflation and unemployment. 

So far, dialogue between Western allies and Tehran has focused on the nuclear issue but with dialogue not bearing fruit (except for giving the Tehran regime more time potentially to surreptitiously develop its nuclear programme), the time may have come to get tough and impose strong, smart sanctions and to even widen the debate to issues of domestic and regional security.  Here I shall explore these issues in turn.

Iran’s descent into civil chaos

Picture 6 The Tehran regime has brutally clamped down on the opposition Green Movement protests which engulfed the entire country after the death of leading reformist cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri on 20th December 2009. His death happened to occur at the start of the religious month of Muharram when Shiite Muslims mourn the death of Hussain, the Prophet Mohammad's grandson at the Battle of Karbala in 680AD and which symbolises the struggle against oppression and tyrannical government. It re-energised the supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi since the summer uprising against the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   But now the struggle is no longer simply about votes.  People are fighting for human dignity and freedom, justice and respect for the rule of law. 

Demonstrations reached their most intense on the day of Ashura, the tenth and most significant day within the religious period.  At least seven people were killed including Mousavi's nephew, Ali Mousavi Khamane and a process of arrests started and those taken in included Dr Noushin Ebadi, a professor at Tehran Azad University and sister of the Nobel Laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, Mousavi’s brother-in-law Shapour Kazemi and former foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi.  

Media coverage in the West has been quick to question whether the civil unrest signals the end of the totalitarian regime in Tehran.  However, the reality is that any transition to power will be bloody and brutal and risks descending into civil chaos or worse. The opposition finds itself up against a regime whose grip on power is so absolute and which is ready to use all the machinery of state to snuff out any protests.  The ground certainly has been prepared with the integration of the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Basij force and the expansion of the intelligence apparatus.  Iran’s police chief, General Ahmadi-Moghaddam has signalled that the “era of tolerance is over”.

The regime will undoubtedly try to consolidate power by appealing to the religious base that the struggle it faces is one to maintain the values of the Islamic Republic against domestic traitors and the ‘demonic West’.   Pro-government, stage managed rallies and Parliamentary sessions have called for the arrest and even the execution of Mehdi Karrubi, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Fa'ezeh Hashemi (the daughter of former reformist president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani).  Pro-opposition protesters have been labelled as mohareb i.e. enemies of God, for which punishment is death. 

Picture 7 What next?  The short answer is: who knows?  What is clear is the every national religious day in the Islamic calendar, political anniversary or funeral of a protester will be a potential flashpoint for yet more demonstrations.  On Mousavi’s website, reference is being made to "Arba'een", which marks 40 days after Ashura and takes place around February 5th.  The opposition is strongly mobilised.  Thanks to the internet, the voices of the protesters are being heard and the heavy hand of the regime can be watched online by ordinary citizens regardless of what is being reported on Iranian state owned media.  More importantly, sixty per cent of the population is under the age of 30 – they are Westernised, secular and at the forefront of those seeking greater freedom and justice in the country (hence the crackdown across university campuses). 

However, this battle will not be won on secular grounds but by challenging the regime that its policy of repression against its own people and denial of their universal rights has eroded its legitimacy and makes a mockery of its Islamic credentials.  Sadly, the death of Montazeri, the Green Movement’s spiritual leader, is a huge loss.  As a Grand Ayatollah, he was more senior in rank than Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini and his pronouncements had immense moral authority.  Only time will tell if someone like Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, another reformist cleric, can fill the breach.

What of the West’s response to the crisis in Iran? Western Governments have extended their support for the opposition and called for the regime in Tehran to respect human rights.  However, they have stopped short of calling for regime change, insisting that Iranian’s people’s destiny is in their own hands.  The regime is clearly losing its grip if it can only stay in power by virtue of intimidation and arrests, violence, anti-Western, anti-Israel propaganda and a media lockdown. 

The nuclear standoff

As a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Iran has the right to generate nuclear power for peaceful purposes but the regime has refused to comply with UN resolutions that it suspends enrichment.  After talks in Geneva and Vienna with the five big nuclear powers and Germany, Iran rejected a proposal under which most of its uranium would be shipped to France and Russia for processing into fuel for use in civilian reactors, ensuring that no uranium was being diverted for military purposes.  Iran’s protracted diplomatic dance with Western powers has only served to give it more time to surreptitiously develop its nuclear capabilities.  It is difficult to assess how far down the line Iran is but every day a new story emerges - whether it’s (unaffordable) plans to build 10 uranium enrichment plants the size of the main enrichment complex at Natanz or an agreement to buy more than 1,300 tons of uranium ore from Kazakhstan (thereby circumventing a UN brokered deal). 

The time has come for the international community to step up the pressure on Iran to provide the incentive for it to abandon its enrichment programme and return to the negotiating table with purpose and goodwill and to punish the Tehran regime for continued transgression.  The UN Security Council must impose an urgent set of new sanctions against Iran.  But without sufficient strength, a further round of sanctions will be fruitless.  Alongside, the inspections regime has to be intensified to ensure that Iran does not attempt to smuggle nuclear materials into the country. 

The US has already announced measures it seeks to impose and as Iran’s largest trading partner, the EU must match these measures and implement them in a resolute and unified manner.  It is however important not to punish the Iranian people for the actions of its government, so measures such as blocking petrol imports should be avoided.  However, a ban on oil and gas investment and export credits will have an immediate impact.  Sanctions may also target Iran’s financial and insurance sector. 

In order to nullify the regime’s machinery of repression, the extensive financial interests of key players such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Khamenei family interests may also be targeted, alongside an arms embargo and a ban on military training.  Iran’s nuclear infractions are only one source of disagreement with Iran – any nuclear agreement will not secure peace in the region if Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah in particular and its role in sponsoring international terrorism is not addressed.  That is why sanctions (as well as negotiations over nuclear enrichment) must include these other equally pressing security concerns.

However, the effectiveness of international sanctions will depend on whether China and Russia, traditional allies of Iran, fully sign up to this approach.  The consensus must be that such a route is the only effective way to force Iran to abandon its enrichment programme and to prevent military preventative action being taken either by an international coalition or Israel, which seems to be challenged by the Tehran regime on an almost daily basis.  Sanctions must also be swiftly implemented – even with regime change in Iran, there is no guarantee that the enrichment programme will be abandoned.  By imposing sanctions now, Iran’s opposition will also see that the West’s support is also predicated upon it fulfilling the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Military action against Iran must surely be the last resort.  It would have as serious and unthinkable consequences as Iran producing nuclear arsenal.  That is not to say that a strategy should not be worked out; the Tehran regime has to know that Western allies would be capable and willing of striking. 

Leaving aside the size and financial cost of military intervention and public appetite for another campaign, the logistics would appear daunting.  Iran’s nuclear assets are well distributed with many underground - many sorties and bunker-busting munitions would be required and even then not all underground sites would be destroyed.  Iran could re-start its enrichment programme, albeit debilitated.  Iran may retaliate by attacking Israel with missiles armed with warheads possibly containing biological or chemical weapons and NATO troops would certainly be put at risk in Afghanistan and Shia-led Iraq.  The regime could blow up ships in the Strait of Hormuz, blocking the oil shipping passageway.  Whilst militarily it may be hard for Iran to sustain such disruption, it could take months to fully restore trade.  The increase in the price of oil would hurt the global economy. 

In addition, the populations in neighbouring Muslim countries may grow increasingly agitated, possibly leading to civil disturbances, and were Israel to attack unilaterally, regional conflict would be a real possibility (with other countries such as Syria pulled in).  Finally, a military attack would almost certainly ensure the long-term survival of the Tehran regime.  Tehran is not Kabul or Baghdad – the deaths of Iranian civilians at the hands of Western or Israeli bombing missions will do more to silence the voice of reformists than any weapon of repression inflicted by the Tehran regime itself. 

What next?

This year, we will hopefully see heavier sanctions applied to Iran’s regime as a means to bring it to the negotiating table vis-à-vis its nuclear programme.  The West must continue to admonish the regime’s repression of its own people in the strongest possible of terms and ensure that the voice of the Iranian people continues to be heard.  Every YouTube video and Twitter report undermines the regime.  The Islamic Republic continues to peddle the same conspiracy of Western collusion with reformists in order to bring down the theocratic regime.  Iranian people have to stand up to the clichéd responses of the regime and secure a better future for them.  Perusing the internet tonight, one Nelson Mandela quote is being re-tweeted: ‘the time comes in the life of any nation where there are only two choices - submit or fight’.

NB This piece was submitted on January 2nd


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