The Fight for Change in Iran | Opinion

Bloodshed and refugee flows are what the free world has come to expect from political shifts in the Middle East. It is against this backdrop and the paltry progress toward democratic rights that the West views any potential for change in Iran. America's maximum pressure campaign was long overdue, but there is little planning for what can come if the regime implodes or society rises up to overthrow it.

Though the Iranian people's struggle against Islamist totalitarianism shares much with the Eastern European struggle against Communism—and its import is just as much for the free world—the investment the West has made in ensuring any breakthrough in Iran is toward democracy and greater stability is remarkably lacking.

But Iran is almost certain to undergo massive changes—and soon. Sanctions have debilitated the regime. This, combined with deep, systemic corruption, leaves even the mafia state's kingpins flailing. The "mostazafin," or downtrodden, who were to benefit from the glories of Islamo-Marxism, are only more numerous 41 years after the Islamic Revolution and are far worse off, watching children of those who feign piety and an ascetic life drive luxury cars or flee altogether to their hedonistic safe havens in the West. Unable to feed his family, an oil worker has hung himself. Suffocating from lack of clean air, parched from lack of water, lacking jobs and dignity, protestors brave indiscriminate killing by thugs branded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The regime kills innocents in so many ways—on the streets, in the skies, in the mountains, in the seas, in the rivers, in neighboring lands and in lands far away—that mourning families are now a thorn in the side of regime officials who can only pretend not to notice, looking the other way to feed the West disinformation to maintain the facade of a legitimate, stable state.

Even before the added heartbreak of COVID-19, the Iranian people could no longer contain their disgust of officials who spoke of God, righteousness and welfare but stole from them to enrich themselves and to wage wars to spread their dominion and medieval backwardness. Beginning in late 2018, when the Iranian people were supposed to be benefiting from the largesse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action nuclear deal, protests engulfed the whole of Iran, with people on the streets shouting against both the so-called reformists and hardliners in over 100 cities. Shortly after, people rose up throughout the region to reject the theocratic mafia state they know has been robbing them of vitality and respect. In November 2019, people rose up again throughout Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei ordered protestors be killed; over 1,500 were shot to death in the streets, and many thousands were imprisoned.

One protestor, Pouya Bakhtiari, inspired others via his video messages about nonviolent overthrow as the path to freedom. The regime shot Pouya in the head. His father, Manouchehr Bakhtiari, watches video footage of his son's head being blown up by Khamenei's henchmen each and every day. He says it helps him to remember why he must fight until victory over the regime that took his son and the innocent children of so many others.

While grieving, Mr. Bakhtiari was imprisoned for his public statements demanding accountability from the supreme leader. After his release, he issued a video message pleading the world to keep its sanctions—a shocking catharsis from inside the country. He has inspired other family members of protestors shot to death to speak out, and has taken one action of profound significance: raising Iran's lion and sun flag. The flag has been a symbol of the Iranian nation for many hundreds of years, and it is the national icon first and foremost defamed and forbidden by the Islamist regime. Anyone daring allegiance to it from inside the country risks his or her life. But since Mr. Bakhtiari has done so, more and more have bravely followed suit: raising the flag at a port authority, outside a private home, above a highway, at the peak of Damavand mountain, on car windshields and in other small ways.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

These are signs—combined with protests, strikes, civil disobedience, open letters of dissent by brave Iranians now in the dungeon, and activism via social networks—that democratic breakthrough may come far sooner than policymakers imagine. If such a breakthrough is not seized with support by leaders of democratic nations, the Iranian people may well lack the wherewithal to steer change toward the peaceful building of an open society. The loss will be not only for Iranians, but for all those seeking a more peaceful Middle East.

As in the transition from Soviet totalitarianism, democratic hopes may be lost and a new repressive state may replace the old, with the deep state and oligarchs reconsolidating their empire. The theocracy may refashion itself as a military dictatorship or the country could be lost to civil war—or both. A strong man may usurp power, particularly if the free world does not insist on freedom.

A key challenge that is also a vital opportunity will be establishing national security and the rule of law, preventing chaos and confusion, securing borders and giving Iranians from all parts of the country and all ethinc and religious groups credence in the fruits of one, shared nation that is free and prosperous. There are other actions, also fundamental to not squandering the opportunity of a political opening, that will need international assistance:

  • a transitional government that ensures provision of public services, prevents discord and opens the way for a complete liberalization of the state;
  • a democratic constitution to create institutions accountable to the people and ensure long-term democratic vitality;
  • truth, reconciliation and transitional justice to provide the Iranian people with redress and the means to move forward with fairness, in unison;
  • reform of the judicial system;
  • a modern education system and liberal curricula to help foster transition to democratic life, and to equip Iranian youth with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to sustain their open society and to compete in the global economy;
  • public policy reform to address the profound psycho-social-economic deprivation of the Iranian people; and
  • economic policy for an open, merit-based market.

With such help, the Iranian people can be a most natural and loyal friend to all free nations. What's more, their new Iran will mean all peoples of the region will not only have the chief enemy to their peace and freedom removed, but will gain a true ally to build up their countries, too, in one shared, humanist vision.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is a leading proponent for a democratic Iran. She previously was co-director of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, which she co-founded. Follow her on Twitter @memarsadeghi.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.