Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 27 November 2022


The West is finally waking up to the real problem in Iran

Protestors hold portraits of Mahsa Amini and Iranian who were arrested or killed in the recent uprising in Iran during a rally in solidarity with Iranian protestors in Paris on Oct. 29. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)
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Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights campaigner. A member of the Human Rights Foundation’s International Council, she hosts “Tablet,” a talk show on Voice of America’s Persian service.

The anti-regime protests in Iran — triggered by the death in police custody of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini — are now in their third month. More than 400 protesters have been killed since then; at least another 15,000 have been arrested. Iran is aching for change. The streets are filled with those who are willing to risk losing everything for their freedom.

That the unrest continues is itself a remarkable tribute to those overwhelmingly young Iranians who refuse to back down in the face of brutal violence from the regime. Western leaders have been slow to acknowledge the full significance and depth of what has been happening inside Iran — not least because of their fixation on persuading the regime to agree to a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. But now, at last, there are welcome signs of change.

Earlier this month, I had a chance to persuade French President Emmanuel Macron to back what many of us are calling the “revolution” in Iran. At first, as a uniformed guard escorted me through the gilded corridors of the Élysée Palace, I had to keep my anger in check. Just two months earlier, Macron had shaken hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who earlier in his career ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s.

Yet, Macron was sending a huge message to the clerics in Tehran by meeting me. The Islamic republic regards me as an “enemy of the state” and has launched plots to kidnap me and assassinate me at my home in Brooklyn over the past two years. I was grateful for the French president’s signal of support — but even more I wanted to see him register his appreciation for the Iranian protesters.

Macron is very intelligent and curious. He is charming and asks pointed questions. But he shrugged off the Raisi handshake. For Macron, diplomacy means that you sometimes have to meet people you don’t agree with.

Fair enough, I said. But France, I responded, also has a history of respecting revolutionary thoughts and deeds. It was long overdue, I argued, for the world to recognize that the events in Iran fall into precisely this category.

But what truly moved Macron was the delegation of Iranian women who accompanied me: Roya Piraei, a young girl who became a symbol of the protests after her mother was recently shot and killed by the regime; Ladan Boroumand, a veteran human rights activist and researcher; and Shima Babaei, an activist opposed to compulsory hijab who recently fled Iran. Piraei, clutching a picture of her mother, had a simple request for Macron: She asked him not to shake hands with the killers of her mother.

For Macron, this was an eye-opening experience. It was the first time he had come face-to-face with Iranian civil society, embodied by women who had all lost members of their own families. It was reassuring to hear that the French president agreed that compulsory hijab was forced on Iranian women and that it was time to abolish it.

Support for this revolution is not limited to Macron. Within the past few weeks, both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have expressed support for the protesters and condemned the brutality and harsh tactics used against them by the regime. The European Union and Canada have imposed additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran for its brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Even before the protests began, negotiations between Europe and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program had stalled. Now the talks are widely regarded as dead — and rightly so. Democratic leaders need to rethink their relationship with a barbaric regime that has no compunction about killing its own citizens. For too long, rather than placing the emphasis on Iranians’ human rights, the West has naively prioritized short-term goals of containing the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy. (The United States, sadly, remains something of a laggard in this regard: President Biden still hasn’t made a strong and decisive public statement in favor of the protesters.)

At every available opportunity, leaders in Iran have benefited from this naivete. They have used it to spread their tentacles of terror across the region and impose a strict form of religious dictatorship. The West looked away from the horrors of the Tehran regime in the hopes that the system would reform slowly. Not only did that evolution not happen, but the Islamic Republic of Iran has become an even greater security threat for the world — just look at the Iranian drones blowing up Ukrainian infrastructure in support of Putin’s invaders. Iran’s reckless support for Moscow — which has outraged the international community — is potentially bringing the Islamic republic closer to conflict with NATO.

Macron expressed his admiration for the protesting Iranian women and men who are fighting for freedom from the regime in Tehran. We need more world leaders to recognize the new Iranian revolution.

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