On Jan 4th, four days ago, I spoke briefly in my News and Views from the Nefarium about the recent riots in Iran, and what may be going on there. Iran - or if you will, Persia - is a land of dualisms and paradox. It is a sophisticated, technologically advanced country with a literate and educated people, a literary and artistic heritage going back centuries. It is, after all, the home of one of the great empires and civilizations of the classical era. Yet too, it is the home of a brutal backward and murderous theocracy. It's a land of dualisms, a fact that is perhaps to some extent ironic, since it is also home to the ancient dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism. Hence, in my News and Views four days ago, I suggested yet another dualism possibly at work in the recent protests against that backward and totalitarian regime; I suggested that there may be two basic, and very different, roots of the protests. One might be historic, as before World War I, Persia - now Iran - was the home of very reformist clergy who wanted and were attempting to outline a reform of the Shia Islam they had inherited. I detailed a bit of this process, and how it was short-circuited during World War I by the West, as Baron von Oppenheim and others were attempting to weaponize radicalized Islam in the service of the Central Powers against the Allies. The other possibility that I entertained was that, in addition to these old currents, long repressed but never entirely erased, there might be considerable presence of Western agents provocateur driving, or at least attempting to influence, events.
With that in mind, Mr. T.M. sent along this very thoughtful article that appeared in The Atlantic magazine, written by an Iranian, Karim Sadjapour, which seems to confirm at least some of my suspicions:
The title says it all: Iran is entering a prolonged period of contention for its cultural and national heart and soul, a struggle that, as I have attempted to indicate, was put on hold, but not forgotten, during World War One. Sadjapour does not mince words concerning the difficulties the country and the protesters face:
Protest movements in the Middle East face enormous repressive hurdles and rarely have happy endings. Even when protesters “succeed” in toppling an autocrat, they’ve rarely succeeded in ending autocracy.
In Iran, the obstacles to success are daunting. Whereas most Middle Eastern countries are ruled by secular autocrats focused on repressing primarily Islamist opposition, Iran is an Islamist autocracy focused on repressing secular opposition. This dynamic—unarmed, unorganized, leaderless citizens seeking economic dignity and pluralism, versus a heavily armed, organized, rapacious ruling theocracy that espouses martyrdom—is not a recipe for success.
What makes these protests unique is that they are in some cases clearly expressing open opposition to the current theocratic regime, echoing - dimly to be sure - the pre-World War One movements for reform:
And yet, against this inauspicious backdrop, Iran’s mushrooming anti-government protests—although so far much smaller in scale than the country’s 2009 uprising—have been unprecedented in their geographic scope and intensity. They began December 28 in Mashhad, a Shiite pilgrimage city often considered a regime stronghold, with protesters chanting slogans like “leave Syria alone, think about us.” They soon spread to Qom, Iran’s holiest city, where protesters expressed nostalgia for Reza Shah, the 20th-century modernizing autocrat who ruthlessly repressed the clergy. They continued in provincial towns, with thousands chanting, “we don’t want an Islamic Republic” in Najafabad, “death to the revolutionary guards” in Rasht, and “death to the dictator” in Khoramabad. They’ve since spread to Tehran, and hundreds have been arrested, the BBC reported, citing Iranian officials.
Sadjapour acknowledges that these grievances in some respects are indeed decades old, the difference now being the connectedness of the country via smartphones and social media:
While these grievances have been festering for years and indeed decades, among the dozens of factors that distinguish today’s protests from 2009 is the smartphone. In 2009—when an estimated 2 million to 3 million Iranians protested silently in Tehran—fewer than 1 million Iranians owned such a device, and few outside Tehran. Today, an astonishing 48 million Iranians are thought to have smartphones, all of them equipped with social media and communication apps. The app Telegram alone is thought to have 40 million users, elusive from government control, but not immune to a communications shutdown if Tehran tries to throttle the internet.
Sadjapour points out that the theocratic regime has abundant resources of repression, from its open support for Hezbollah, to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and various Shia militias in the country, facing - let it be noted carefully - an unarmed population. Additionally, Sadjapour points out that the country his the highest execution rate per capita in the world, exceeding even the (out)House of Saud. And, though we don't need to be reminded, Sadjapour points out the repression of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities. Ahh.... the glories and wonders of the religion of peace and tolerance!
What's of interest is how Sadjapour address what the west, and more importantly the USA, can or should do. He poses a unique solution, one which, in the wider context of the global financial-geopolitical war, might have some teeth:
One concrete suggestion is to make it clear that companies and countries around the world complicit in Iran’s repressive apparatus—including those providing censorship technology—will face censure from the United States. The United States should also mobilize global partners that do have working relations with Iran—including Europe, Japan, South Korea, and India—to add their voices of concern and condemnation to Tehran’s repression. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been noticeably silent.
The problem is, of course, the dwindling US leverage over its allies, fed up as they are with American unpolarism, particularly in Europe, where Washington's sanctions regime is falling on increasingly deaf ears, as witnessed by the French finance minister, M. Bruno Lemaire's statements that I referred to in my News and Views.
Eventually, the Iranian theocracy will topple and its ayatollahs will go into the dustbin of history, where they rightfully belong. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the Iranian people will be friends or foe, because regime change games are games that two can play, and given the state of affairs there, it is just remotely possible that the BRICSA bloc - China and Russia and India in particular - would much rather do business with a stable and prosperous democratic Iran, than a fundamentalist and ultimately unstable one. I know that bucks every geopolitical intuition popularly held about those countries, but in the long run, my bet is that they rather have Iran in their corner than not. And eventually, the regime will fall. Why am I confident of this? Because after a century of repression from the Shah and then from ayatollahs, the Iranians still want freedom. And quiet support of the protestors from China, India, and Russia, would make their currency rise in the world and create yet another problem for American policy in the region. High octane speculation? To be sure! But stranger things have happened, and in the high-stakes world of the geopolitical-financial warfare we see emerging, anything is possible. Is there precedent in history for such an alignment between political ideologies and systems so misaligned? Indeed there is, for remember, republican France and Great Britain aligned themselves with one of the most repressive autocracies on earth against the constitutional monarchy and parliament of Imperial Germany in World War One.
To put it country simple: Iran is becoming a test for the BRICSA bloc, and it will be interesting to watch how China, India, and Russia respond, for respond, eventually, they must.
See you on the flip side...