One can only imagine how many Iranians feel as they watch Arab regimes in the region collapse.
Yet one prominent regional nation has been surprisingly silent, one that is certainly responsible, at least partially, for inspiring the Arab revolution with its own massive street protests two years ago: Iran.
The Iranian situation is startlingly ironic. On June 13, 2009 hundreds of thousands of Iranians flooded major population centers in Iran, displaying a sense of passion and fervor not witnessed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. These Iranians, of varied political, religious and ethnic orientations, were united in their demand for an answer to a meaningful question: “Where is my vote?”
However, the regime responded swiftly and brutally to repress what were largely peaceful, non-violent protests, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of innocent casualties. Some 18 months after the initial demonstrations, Iranians watched as their repressed Arab neighbors initiated popular, largely successful revolts against authoritarian regimes.
During a recent discussion with an Iranian colleague, I asked how most Iranians felt about the ongoing Mideast turmoil. She said many Iranians were envious while watching their Arab neighbors securing unanticipated freedom and relief from years of cruelty and oppression. While her countrymen are joyful and supportive of the Arab nations’ successes, she said, Iranians continue to suffer under their theocratic regime’s iron grip.
“Of course we are upset,” she added, “the sense of irony is practically intolerable.”
My colleague also quipped that many Iranians can’t help but joke about the Iranian government’s overt hypocrisy in supporting the Arab revolutions while systematically crushing any such local attempts. Indeed, this bitter irony must be a heavy burden to endure. However, she assured me that the Iranian people are resilient, and their hope for change remains steadfast even in the face of enormous adversity.
Syria first, Iran nextUnlike Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, where the military played a neutral or even active role in propagating regime downfall, in Iran and Syria the military apparatus has no qualms about executing diabolical orders. The political elite is conspicuously detached from the popular will of its citizenry and display zero hesitation in using force to massacre innocent men, women and children crying for freedom. Nevertheless, these protests have now reached the point of critical mass and are unlikely to dissipate until the desired outcomes are achieved.
The Syrian regime is possibly the most repressive in the Arab world, perhaps even more malicious than Iran. Until now, the Syrian army, comprising mostly Sunni recruits but dominated by the Alawite elite, has been consistent in following Assad’s orders, resorting to murder and violence at every possible opportunity. However, the cracks in Assad’s regime are widening, and will soon become impossible to seal.
Hundreds of Baath Party members and religious clerics recently resigned to protest the carnage in Syrian towns and the number of military defections is rising.
The fall of the Syrian regime would be a catastrophe for Iran, resulting in the loss of one of its most important allies in the region. This is confirmed by the numerous reports of Iranian and Hezbollah agents in Syria attempting to assist Assad in violently suppressing the demonstrations. In response, chants of “Neither Iran, nor Hezbollah” are being heard frequently on Syria’s streets.
Meanwhile, international condemnations are flowing in from all over the globe, and NGOs and human rights groups are screaming foul over the massive civil rights abuses on the streets of Deraa, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo and other municipalities.
Syria acts as Iran’s bridge to the Arab world, and Assad’s downfall could have powerful ramifications not just for Iran’s foreign policy, but for its domestic stability as well. Feelings of discontent and impatience towards the Tehran regime are festering and are liable to explode at any moment.
The Iranians are a cultured, diverse, intelligent and exceptionally proud nation. Some of the population is clearly disillusioned with the current government, perhaps now more than ever. As nearly every major Arab government around them falls to popular revolt, will the Iranian people stand by idly while the extraordinary opportunity to reclaim their freedom from tyranny passes them by?
The Arab spring may soon breathe life into the Green Movement, providing it with the inspiration to recapture the essence of the 2009 protests and finish the transition that began nearly two years ago. As prominent Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari stated, “In all but name, the Islamic Republic is long gone. Khamenei just doesn’t seem to know it yet.”
Avi Yesawich is currently studying to receive his MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University. He is a graduate of Cornell University, former IDF combat soldier, and contributor to IDF activism website www.friendasoldier.com.
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