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Helpless At Home, Friendless Abroad: How Can Iranians Bring About Change?

With the suppression of last year's anti-regime protests in Iran, its people can barely stomach the West's resumption of its business-as-usual approach with the Islamic Republic. The key to challenging the renewed status quo, the author writes, may very well lie with the country's women.

Three Iranian women wearing printed red headscarves take part in a ceremony for Aras Geopark to receive UNESCO designation in Jolfa, East Azerbaijan, Iran

Iranian women take part in a UNESCO ceremony

Hamid Shirvani


LONDON — The world is familiar with the Iranian regime's terroristic activities beyond Iran's frontiers. Inside the country for over 40 years now, a corrupt and cynical leadership has used religion as an excuse to suppress rights and run a once-prosperous country into the ground. While two thirds of Iranians are living in relative or abject poverty, the state continues to plow billions of dollars into a contested nuclear program that compounds that poverty and stokes tensions with neighbors and the West.

What could change all this? If I had to choose a single word as an answer, that would be women.

In spite of the restrictions placed on them since 1979, Iranian women are now better educated and more in touch with the world than ever before. Their leading role in the mass protests of 2022 and the way they have continued to risk their personal integrity and lives since by refusing to don the mandatory headscarf outdoors is unprecedented.

Observers kept saying that the 2022 uprising had no recognizable leader or proper organization, though this in and of itself may be cause for optimism. As a single leader or group can be thwarted or eliminated, it is better for a protest movement to become a hydra. One of the movement's strengths was precisely its diffused quality and spontaneous expansion, as its slogan Woman, Life, Freedom sparked solidarity protests across the world.

Ineffective and cynical West

Iranian expatriates in turn increased their efforts to find a solution and hasten the end of the Islamic Republic. They have lobbied with governments in the United States and the European Union, urging tighter sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary guards, which they want labeled as terrorists. Western states did take the positive if diffident step of excluding the Islamic Republic from the UN's women's agency. Its impact, if it had any, has long faded.

More recently, the appointment of an Iranian diplomat to preside over the UN Human Rights Council's two-day Social Forum, due in November, also had an impact. It was ridiculous and an insult to Iranians, but broadly in line with the West's ineffective, and cynical, approach to the Islamic Republic. Nobody really expects sanctions on regime personalities and agencies to cause a shift, and their useless symbolism is simply a fig leaf hiding bigger, strategic and economic interests.

Another sign of the West's indifference to the plight of Iran is in the shoddy treatment given to most Iranian refugees and asylum seekers, in stark contrast with the way it has embraced fleeing Ukrainians. Iranians are helpless at home and friendless abroad, so how could this regime ever change?

A woman with a dove and chains painted on her face demonstrates in the center of Barcelona in solidarity with the Iranian people\u200b in January 2023.

A woman demonstrates in the center of Barcelona in solidarity with the Iranian people in January 2023.

Marc Asensio Clupes/ZUMA

Three possible routes

There are three possibilities in the present context.

The protests of 2022, which lasted from September to the end of the year, mobilized around 100,000 people. This is a tiny proportion of the country's 87 million population, or even of Tehran's 12 million or so residents. One might have expected a million or more to come out, but they did not, for reasons including fear and personal concerns. The option of a popular revolution would thus require the mobilization of a critical mass, nationwide and simultaneously.

Another scenario is direct action by the United States or Israel, which is unrealistic. It seems unlikely the United States would want to replicate in Iran a situation like that of Syria, Libya or Iraq after 2003, especially given Iran's general stability and cohesion in the past century. Forceful intervention could herald another Middle Eastern disaster and inflict untold harm on ordinary Iranians.

The most practical and least damaging scenario is for change to happen within the Islamic Republic, as a prelude to the recovery of a national and secular state.

Officials, soldiers and politicians, must mobilize alongside the people.

The regime's worst enemy right now is a dismal economy, with an inflation rate of 60-70%, an unemployment rate of over 20% in the workforce and countless, basic shortages. The government has successfully shown its incompetence in running an economy.

Is change likely?

I would like to believe that concerned elements inside the regime will come to their senses in extremis, and decide on another way of running the country. Some perhaps will find the courage to join the people or, as the term goes, move to "the right side" of history. In February 2023, dozens of former revolutionaries and former officials signed a letter calling for a new, democratic government in line with the stated ideals of the "Islamic revolution." They pointed out that the revolution had sought to replace autocracy with true democracy.

For protests to succeed in Iran, clearly another critical mass, this time of officials, soldiers and politicians, must mobilize alongside the people.

I am not hopeful of big changes happening in Iran soon. The Islamic Republic is under multiple pressures, but is by turn flexible and threatening. It has restored its frayed ties with the Saudi kingdom and taken a soft line with the Taliban, while shelling Kurds inside Iraq, cajoling Iraqi politicians and discreetly meddling north of its border to thwart the Republic of Azerbaijan.

It may even cede, again, to Western demands over its nuclear program and sign another deal, to earn itself a cash bonanza by returning to the oil market. That means a break for the regime and for Western consumers, but is unlikely to please the region's OPEC powers and partisans of higher oil prices.

While change in Iran must be internal, Western pressures remain crucial.

And it will not please Iranians. The last thing they expected was the furtive renewal of talks between the regime and the U.S., especially after the Biden administration's vocal, though clearly vacuous, support for the 2022 protests and women's rights.

Perhaps it is time for Iranians living in the United States — constituting one of the country's best educated and qualified sectors — to form a more aggressive lobby, like the Cubans of Florida, to pressure representatives over Iran. Those living in Europe might do the same, and at the very least call out the West's diffidence and duplicity over Iran.

While change in Iran must be internal, Western pressures remain crucial. But are they likely?

*Shirvani, an Iranian-American architect, is a guest contributor and his views are not necessarily those of Kayhan-London.

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