Can Sanctions Bring Down The Mullahs?
Why the Iranian regime's days are numbered.
I don’t believe that sanctions against Iran are good enough, although, as I have written before, the Iranian regime is so hollow it could crash at any time. At my advanced age, I still don’t believe I have seen an oppressive regime fall simply because life in its land had become unbearable.
Look around the world, and pick your favorite failed dictatorship. My short list runs from Pyongyang to Caracas, via Tehran and Havana. They are all under sanctions. Their people are miserable, and detest the regime. In some places, there are demonstrations, even huge ones. Yet, from North Korea to Venezuela, the regime isn’t headed for the exits. It cracks down. In some places, such as Venezuela and Iran, the people continue to demonstrate and call for regime change. I think the Islamic Republic of Iran is doomed, and this is pretty much demonstrated by the events of the past few weeks, culminating in the fiasco on Sunday. Successful evolutions require several things, including manifest failure of the regime, widespread contempt from the overwhelming majority of the people, and a palpable inability of the leaders to impose themselves on the country.
Sunday provided a clear test of the strength of the regime and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The occasion was the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution that overthrew the Shah and imposed a theological dictatorship. Khamenei, President Rouhani, and their henchmen were eager to demonstrate that the Iranian people actually support the regime, and that the widespread anti-regime demonstrations of the past month were the marginal consequences of foreign meddling, not genuine passion. Hence the mullahs called for monster rallies to celebrate the 39 years of Islamic Revolution.
It didn’t work. Turnout was shockingly low, and in fact there were scores of anti-regime demonstrations. Speeches by regime supporters were interrupted, and women brandished hijabs in acts of defiance. A fiasco for the regime.
The regime knows its days are numbered. You can see this by watching the relentless increase in the oppression of the Iranian people. Last time I checked, there were half again as many executions under Rouhani as there had been under Ahmadinejad, the former often described as “moderate,” while the latter was considered some kind of bloodthirsty murderer. Today Rouhani sits at the right hand of the chief tyrant, while Ahmadinejad is under house arrest, as are the leaders of the Green Movement who challenged his legitimacy after the phony elections of 2009. Rouhani is forever promising reform, but delivers only mayhem.
The most recent horror is the “suicide” of a beloved environmentalist, Kavous Emami. He was arrested on January 24th, and was suicided within two weeks. Hardly anyone believes he killed himself; he was undoubtedly executed, as even the very cautious New York Times Iran correspondent made clear. And the Iran Sociology Association also spoke out: "The information published about him is not believable and we expect officials to respond and to provide the public with information concerning his death."
Emami was one of many scientists warning of a nationwide water shortage that is one of many grotesque failures of the regime, reminding one of the similar ruination of the environment in the last days of the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, many of Emami’s colleagues have been arrested and still others are rumored to be in prison. Of late, political prisoners have been housed in safe houses run by the Revolutionary Guards instead of the infamous prisons such as Evin in Tehran, where they had routinely been incarcerated. The families of the new wave of political prisoners do not know where to go to find their loved ones, which is exactly what Khamenei et al desire. They fear protests in front of the jails.
The Emami case is instructive, because he was hardly an anti-regime activist. He was a campaigner for a cleaner environment, and so far as I know was not involved in political protests. He was extremely popular, and his work was dangerous to the regime simply because it documented the failure of the system.
As the tempo of oppression mounts, the regime is scrambling to find some way to “demonstrate” its “successes” and “popularity.” The anniversary celebrations were supposed to achieve just that, but instead showed the regime’s failure and unpopularity. If you can’t get a decent turnout for the Islamic Republic’s most important holiday, you’re in trouble.
This is the background against which we need to evaluate recent events, one very public (the intrusion of an Iranian drone into Israeli territory) and one fairly low-key (the rumor of Khamenei’s death). I believe that the drone attack on Israel was conceived as a demonstration of Iranian power against the Israeli “little Satan.” It was to have been part of the celebration, but like the plans for monster rallies in support of the regime, it failed. Just as the holiday demonstrated the hollowness of Khamenei’s tyranny, the drone attack showed Iran’s vulnerability to Israeli power. And the subsequent demolition of, it is said, half of Syrian anti-aircraft forces (which is to say, Syrian-based Iranian anti-aircraft forces), drove home the point.
The other event revolves around the health of the leader. Khamenei has had several medical emergencies over the years, and, starting a few days before the anniversary of the Revolution, well-sourced rumors began to circulate to the effect that he had died. He had not, but he did undergo a crisis, losing consciousness and passing into a coma for several hours.
Under these circumstances, the War of the Persian Succession has intensified, and potential successors are openly attacking one another, jockeying for position should the next coma prove permanent.
As it eventually will.