After months of ever-escalating protests and strikes targeting his despotic rule, the Shah of Iran desperately tried to appease the masses in a television broadcast on November 6, 1978. “I have heard the voice of your revolution,” the shah said, acknowledging past mistakes and promising to make amends. But rather than salvage his reign, this was the moment, according to the revolutionaries’ account, that the shah sealed his own demise.
What the shah did in 1978 is what the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuse to do today as Iranians express outrage at the death of Mahsa Amini.
What the shah did in 1978 is what the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuse to do today as Iranians continue to express outrage at the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid -September in a hospital days after Iran’s “morality police” detained her. for allegedly violating the strictly enforced Islamic dress code in the country. Because they believe the shah’s attempt to meet the protesters halfway was his most decisive mistake, Tehran’s hardliners have ruled for more than 40 years with the maxim of never backing down. an inch – lest the whole revolutionary regime fall.
Iran, according to Amnesty International, instead chose to beat, arrest and even kill young Iranian women and men who dared to seek justice. But rather than being silenced, the protesters shifted their slogans from simply ending compulsory hijab to ending the Islamic Republic as a whole – precisely because the regime never backs down when the people demand their rights and freedom. dignity. The slogan “Zan, zendegi, azadi” (“Woman, life, freedom”) is itself a bright and positive vision of an Iran without a clerical regime, compared to the negative “Down with the dictator”, a slogan used against the shah in 1979 and later against clerical leaders.
Therein lies the irony of the lessons that Iran’s current leaders have learned from the shah’s perceived softness: by stalling reforms, narrowing Iran’s political spectrum and imprison dissidentsthe Islamic Republic made Iranians increasingly disbelieving in reform and led them to conclude that they had no choice but to ask for much more: an end to clerical rule.
Rather than die down, the protests have intensified over the past three days. Yet, despite the inspiring courage of the protesters, there are few signs that they will succeed in toppling the regime in the immediate future. No clear direction for the movement has emerged, and the regime’s willingness to use brute force is unwavering. The absurdity of the regime will unfortunately ensure that there will be more Mahsa Aminis and plenty of reason to protest.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy rejoice and probably see the protests as vindication of their policy. According to their reasoning: the more the United States strangles the Iranian economy and impoverishes the population, the more likely it is that people will have no choice but to revolt. Note Rudy Giuliani’s speech in 2018 to an organization affiliated with the formerly classified as terrorist organization the Mujahideen-e Khalq (a key Support of punishments):”Sanctions work…we saw a man trying to sell his internal organs for US$500…these are the kind of conditions that lead to a successful revolution.”
But like Esfandyar Batmanghelidj from Stock Exchange & Bazaar Foundation underlinethe destruction of economic life by the sanctions has made protests more frequent, but less likely to succeed in bringing down the regime. An impoverished population has more reason to protest, but they simply cannot afford to support protests for long, which makes it easier for the state to quell them. Batmanghelidj argues that the state also has an easier time portraying protesters as serving foreign state interests causing economic misery through sanctions.
Proponents of former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy rejoice and see the protests as vindication of their policies.
There is no doubt that US sanctions have contributed to devastating the Iranian economy. Reducing Iran’s oil exports by 80%, the sanctions have contracted Iran’s economy by nearly 12% between 2018 and 2020, according to Hadi Kahalzadeh of Brandeis University. The number of poor Iranians has fallen from 22 million to 32 million, and Iran’s middle class – the backbone of the country’s democracy movement – has shrunk from 45% to 30% of the population.
Yet, despite sanctions weakening Iranian society, the fearlessness of Iranian youth may eventually overcome the brutality of the regime. If so, then the Iranian people will be faced with the challenge of ensuring that the collapse of the government paves the way for a democratic future. People shouldn’t sacrifice their lives to replace one tyrannical government with another – or simply change the last name of the dictator who rules them.
But more often than not, revolutions do not lead to a democratic future. In 1979, the people of Iran overthrew a shah only to find themselves stuck with an ayatollah. The Arab Spring in Egypt produced a similar result. In Libya and Syria, the Arab uprisings created something even worse: failed states and civil war.
The kinds of sanctions that Giuliani has praised may pose an even greater challenge to protesters, as empirical evidence suggests that throttling sanctions makes democratization less likely. Dursun Peksen and Cooper Drury showed in a 2010 study that “the immediate and longer-term effects of economic sanctions significantly reduce the level of democratic freedoms in the target countries”. The longer-term effect is particularly devastating as the building blocks of a future democracy – from human capital to institutions and adherence to legal and moral standards – are eroded.
In Iraq, sanctions have virtually destroyed secular opposition to Saddam Hussein. Lee Jones, author of “Societies under siege“, said to The Atlantic in 2018, “the only thing that survived were the tribes, which became the core of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and Shia clerics who formed the basis of Shia political parties”.
A study that I co-wrote in 2012 showed that of 35 authoritarian states that successfully transitioned to democracy between 1955 and 2000, only South Africa did so while under broad economic sanctions. Of the 12 states subject to embargo-level sanctions during this period, only one, South Africa, has transitioned to democracy.
Evidence suggests that throttling sanctions makes democratization less likely.
This suggests that the challenges facing young Iranian protesters are not limited to repression and the inflexible mantra of the clerics in power, but also include the confrontation between the West and Iran which has caused some of the most severe economic crises. strangling. punishment in the history of sanctions.
If Iran’s youth prevails, it will be in the interest of most states in the international community to ensure that the building blocks of democratic transition are quickly restored to prevent the tragedy of the 1979 revolution does not happen again.
But, perhaps more importantly, if the regime succeeds in suppressing the protests, Washington must continue to condemn human rights violations by the Iranian government and working through multilateral forums to hold the regime accountable. And to avoid punishing the Iranian people (and Iran’s long-term democratization prospects) for the actions of the Iranian governmentWashington must also seriously rethink its preference for crippling broad-based sanctions.