June 18, 2003

June 18, 2003 | WebMemo on Middle East

Iran: Revolting Against the Revolution?

Iran is seething with student protests, political violence, and growing anger at the radical Islamic hard-liners who dominate the country's politics.  A nationwide protest movement has now mushroomed from what began on June 11 as a small protest against rising costs due to the proposed privatization of some parts of Iranian universities.  Protests have spread from Tehran, the capital, to other cities, including Isfahan, Mashad, Shiraz, and Ahvaz.

 

Despite the bloody attempts of pro-government vigilante thugs to quell demonstrations and intimidate the young protesters, the new Iranian revolutionaries have grown in strength and broadened their demands to include democratic reforms and the dismantling of the Islamic regime. At this critical time, the United States and its allies should apply firm and relentless pressure on Iran through economic sanctions to support the grassroots movement for reform.

 

Tapping a Reservoir of Resentment

The protesters have tapped into a huge reservoir of resentment against the aging mullahs who have led Iran since the 1979 revolution, turning a deaf ear to growing calls for political, economic, and social liberalization.  Because of its arrogant authoritarian rule, corruption, restrictive social policies, and disastrous economic policies, Iran's clerical establishment, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamanei who succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme leader, has grown increasingly unpopular.  Despite Iran's immense oil wealth, Iranians have suffered from high unemployment rates, housing shortages, high inflation, and economic stagnation.  

 

Rising disaffection with Islamic hard-liners led Iranians to vote in overwhelming numbers for reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and, again, in 2001 and, in 2000, to elect a parliament dominated by reformers opposed to the harsh policies of the hard-liners.  But the reformers have been frustrated by the fierce opposition of the Islamic revolution's old guard, which is entrenched in the judiciary, the police, the Revolutionary Guard, the state-controlled radio and television media, and the Islamic foundations that control more than one quarter of the economy. 

 

Hard-liners Attempts to Quell Protests

Iran's hard-liners have blocked reform efforts, limited the powers of the parliament, cracked down on political dissidents, and closed more than 70 reformist newspapers in the last three years, creating an explosive situation.  Iranian students- nearly all of whom were born years after the 1979 revolution-are exasperated by the sluggish pace of reform and the continued restrictions on social and political freedoms.  The students, who have assumed a leading political role, serve as a significant barometer, registering the mood of Iran's youthful population: An estimated 70 percent or Iran's 67 million people are under the age of 30.

 

To discredit the growing protest movement as a foreign-inspired plot, the Iranian government has accused the United States of meddling in the country's internal  affairs and charged that the Bush Administration has encouraged the protests.  Iranian officials have tried to jam satellite television broadcasts operated by Iranian exiles in the United States.  However, although those broadcasts may have swelled the crowds in the early days of the protests, the demand for change is now a  grassroots phenomenon , fueled by the widespread disaffection of Iranians with the harsh Islamic regime that has repressed freedom at home, exported terrorism abroad, isolated Iran from the world, and ruined Iran's economy.

 

What the United States Should Do

To be sure, the Bush Administration has taken a harder line against Iran than did the Clinton Administration, which relaxed economic sanctions on Iran in a failed effort to improve relations with the reformists led by President Khatami. But Khatami was not willing or able to deliver for Clinton any more than he was able to deliver promised reforms for the Iranian students, who now denounce him and other reformers for doing too little to late. 

 

President Bush named Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" in January 2002 and put the United States squarely on the side of the Iranian people's quest for reform in a July 12, 2002 speech in which he noted: "The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes." On June 15, President Bush lauded the most recent student protests, saying: "This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive."

 

The Bush Administration should now:

  1. Tighten economic sanctions on Iran to drive home to the regime the costs of repression at home, terrorism abroad, and Iran's continued efforts to build nuclear weapons, and
  2. Press its European allies, Japan, and international financial institutions to deny Iran loans, aid, and debt relief until it halts its support of terrorism, puts its nuclear program under strict international safeguards, and respects the rights of its own people.

Firm and relentless pressure is needed to force change in Iran. Engaging in a "dialogue of civilizations" with President Khatami and other reformers who have proved incapable of changing Iran will not achieve the desired results because the hard-liners control Iranian foreign policy and ensure its continuing support for terrorism. But the Iranian people, who also demand change, could become a key ally in helping to dismantle the "Axis of Evil".

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy