The outburst of protests in the Iranian city of Mashhad on Thursday, December 28, was initiated by religious conservatives calling out the ongoing economic hardship, high food prices, and unemployment; but in an unexpected turn, fueled by social media, the demonstrators shouted slogans unheard in the history of the 38-year regime of the Islamic Republic.
“Marg Bar Diktator! (Death to the Dictator!),” the masses declared on the streets of dozens of cities. And if anyone had doubts whether they were referring to President Hassan Rouhani, the mild chant was soon succeeded by “Marg Bar Khamenei,” with posters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei torn and put to the torch. But the protests did not have a clear leadership, and so far there have not been sizable defections from the military and police personnel. If the troops were reluctant to shoot down fellow citizens, the ideologically hardened Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards Corps are ready to crush dissent by any means.
Having crushed secular opposition in its first year in power, instigating and surviving a bloody eight-year war with Iraq, deploying agents to war zones in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, defying international pressure to develop nuclear technology and then blackmailing the United States into signing the nuclear deal, the clerical regime knows how to survive. For millions of Iranians living in exile, hope of returning to a secular and internationally engaged Iran becomes more distant over the years. But there is hope and it is coming from the protesters.
As Jews, we know the feeling of being ignored by the world
When one app is blocked, they find another, and when that fails, there’s instant messaging, email, and low-tech tools used by revolutionaries throughout history: coded messages, underground publications, and graffiti on walls. As many of us know well, Facebook may be a good place to start, but unless its users get out of the comfort of their living rooms and accept physical risk, the revolution will not proceed.
Another difference this time is President Donald Trump. Unlike Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack Obama, who stood by in 2009 while Iran’s Green Revolution was crushed by hardliners, the current president has made his support known on Twitter, at the United Nations, and with renewed sanctions – seemingly in every measure short of military action. It is a welcome reaction in comparison to the feckless Europeans who are “watching with concern” and “closely monitoring the situation.”
As of press time, the street protests appear to be diminishing, as general strikes and silent vigils take their place. Few revolutions in history are quick, and even fewer are bloodless and quick. The downfall of the Berlin Wall and Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia are the exceptions.
In the United States, between the first protests of the Stamp Act and the departure of the last Redcoats, it was an 18-year struggle to expel the British from our shores. In Russia, the revolution of 1905 was brutally crushed by Tsar Nicholas II. Twelve years later, this tsar was without a crown, without his freedom, and within a year shot dead in a basement. In Poland, the Solidarity strikes of 1981 were nonviolent, inspiring, and ruthlessly crushed. But within a decade, strike leader Lech Walesa was elected president.
This Iranian revolution is far from over. In the coming months and perhaps years, it will ebb and flow like the tides, the country’s secular side and historically Persian identity pushing back against the forced veil that covers this once-proud civilization. Should this revolution succeed, it should remind the world that human rights must become a priority again.
As Jews, we know the feeling of being ignored by the world. We recall Soviet refuseniks trapped behind the Iron Curtain, their protests dampening the spirit of detente in the 1970s. We remember how ghetto fighters in Warsaw raised the Polish flag and the slogan “for our freedom and yours.” They received very little assistance from the Polish resistance and nothing from the Allied powers. The same is true with the inmates of Auschwitz, who wished to have American planes bomb their camp, if only to demonstrate that the world knew of its existence.
Firewalls are going up, and literal walls as well, the voices of freedom-seeking Iranians more difficult to reach. A presidential tweet may not sway the immediate course of events in Iran, but compared to the indifference of other countries on this matter, it shows leadership and puts this country on the right side of history.
By Sergey Kadinsky