Tom Ridge | January 12, 2018
For over a week, Iran has been rocked by demonstrations that started as expressions of frustration about crushing poverty and widespread unemployment but quickly morphed into calls for the ouster of the repressive ruling regime. The unrest came as something of a surprise, even though thousands of smaller-scale protests, with more limited demands, had been observed over the previous year alone.
What did not come as a surprise was the theocratic regime’s brutal response. On Friday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) released figures on the human cost of the first nine days. Drawing on information from the network of the NCRI’s leading constituent group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the coalition determined that at least 50 people had been killed and at least 3,000 arrested.
Iranian authorities publicly acknowledged some of these killings and the arrests, including 500 arrests in Tehran alone. But some of those same authorities have been trying to downplay the strife, suggesting that participation in Tehran was waning and that the rest of the country would soon follow.
The reality appears to be quite the contrary. As President Trump observed in one of his several Twitter posts in support of the protesters: “The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer.”
Indeed, the majority of Iranians have been opposed to the absolute clerical rule since it was first imposed on them in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution. But the regime-change movement has been waiting for a tipping point, and with the appropriate support from the international community, that point may soon be at hand.
Trump’s personal praise for the ongoing demonstrations is indicative of his administration’s awareness that radical transformation of the Iranian government is very much attainable. The spontaneous, grassroots nature of those demonstrations also underscores that when that transformation comes about, it will be driven by the Iranian people themselves, without the need for the direct Western intervention that has failed in other instances.
Of course, if triumph were inevitable, there would be no need for Western leaders to weigh in at all. Unfortunately, as Iran’s 2009 Green Movement demonstrated, the silence of international power players can be the death knell for a democratic uprising. There is a happy medium between intervention and indifference.
The White House must design a clear strategy for how to support the Iranian people from a distance, not just in words but in deeds. Hopefully it will do so quickly, before the U.S. and its allies miss another opportunity to help the Iranian people reclaim their country from the world’s leading progenitors of anti-Americanism and radical Islamic extremism.
The United Nations Security Council addressed the issue of Iran’s repressive response to the protests but failed to take any actions, thanks to the usual suspects, Russia and China, whose business with Tehran is booming. The meeting was, nevertheless, a success, as, in the words of Ambassador Haley, the voice of the Iranian people was heard at the most important international body.
The current protests are numerically smaller than those of 2009, numbering in the tens of thousands rather than the millions. But they are growing, and as long as the flow of information remains relatively undiminished, that growth stands to proceed at a much more rapid pace than it did nearly a decade ago. In 2009, only one million Iranians had smartphones. Today, 48 million have access to the social networks the clerical authorities are trying so desperately to cut off.
The State Department deserves credit for reportedly staying in touch with Iranians via these networks and encouraging them to use virtual private networks to evade new restrictions. This strategy should certainly continue, but the U.S. and all of its democratic allies must also go further. First multinational censures should be directed toward all companies that help Tehran to curtail free speech and toward any individuals or institutions within Iran that respond to ongoing protests with human rights violations.
Beyond this, Western governments should recognize the importance of publicly supporting sources of organized democratic opposition. The National Council of Resistance of Iran stands ready to hoist a unified banner, in opposition to the continuation of clerical rule. It has already been a major driving force behind countless protests across the Islamic Republic in recent years.
Clearly, the Iranian regime views the NCRI as the single greatest threat to their theocratic dictatorship. The most effective way for the U.S. to align itself with pro-democracy citizens and groups within Iran is to recognize the NCRI, its leadership and their commitment to a free, democratic, non-nuclear Iran.
Mr. Ridge was the nation’s First Homeland Security Secretary and former Pennsylvania Governor