Ali Safavi, The Hill, 11 November 2017
On Nov. 4, the Iranian regime commemorated the 38th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979, when dozens of Americans were taken hostage for 444 days. This year, it paraded its ballistic missiles in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. With chants of “Death to America,” the disdain for international norms and the nuclear deal came through loud and clear.
But that image does not represent Iran.
Today, the average Iranian citizen longs for friendship and mutually beneficial ties with the outside world, particularly the United States. In 1979, it was not only Americans taken hostage by a medieval theocratic order; the Iranian people were also taken hostage and held captive after their democratic revolution was usurped by Khomeini.
Decades later, the prospects of change in Iran are closer and more viable than ever. Internal conditions are conducive to a fundamental sociopolitical transformation, and the Iranian people are rising up and demanding democracy.
At least three distinct but interrelated factors accentuate the prospects for change:
First, the internal dynamics: The mullahs’ systemic, pervasive mismanagement of the economy has left the Iranian people’s basic rights and demands unaddressed and out of reach. The “army of the unemployed,” a devalued currency, inflation and corruption are tied to a host of social ills like prostitution, drug abuse and suicides.
Many thousands have been literally robbed of their life savings after regime-affiliated financial institutions, free from accountability and regulations, defrauded them. These companies are tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s office and the State Security Forces (SSF).
These people are now staging mass protests in cities across Iran, including Tehran. Every day, thousands pour into the streets to protest economic misconduct and injustices.
The regime is clearly frightened. Last month, tens of thousands of people sought to stage a gathering to commemorate the birth of Persian King Cyrus the Great (known for his respect for human rights and freedom of expression).
The regime arrayed all its forces to stop it. A number of the most senior IRGC commanders were hurriedly deployed to the Tomb of Cyrus. No less than 6,000 IRGC and SSF forces were stationed there to prevent protests.
The second important factor for change is the regime’s loss of the all-important backing of the U.S. Sadly, the Obama administration went out of its way to cajole and appease the “Islamic Republic government” for eight years. Now, the new administration, rightly calling Tehran a “dictatorship,” has afforded due respect for the Iranian people, not their murderers.
The decision to step up restrictions on the regime, including placing the IRGC on the terrorist list and imposing new Treasury sanctions, marks an important departure for U.S. policy. The IRGC has long been the regime’s backbone, controlling its security and suppression apparatus while increasing its dominance over the Iranian economy.
The Treasury Department’s sanctions are a necessary step in dealing with the regime’s suppression, terrorism and ballistic missile programs. However, they need to be extended to individuals, companies and entities affiliated with the IRGC, as well as to the IRGC’s foreign proxies.
Today, IRGC commanders stationed in 31 provinces throughout Iran are responsible for cracking down on protests and peaceful assembly. These individuals should also be placed under sanctions.
Finally, the third element facilitating change is the successful 2016 resettlement of all members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from their camp in Iraq to Albania. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Iranian regime had sought to physically eliminate members of this leading opposition movement.
Those plans were foiled, and now the organized nucleus of the opposition has been re-energized, boosting its strength and cohesiveness.
The growing social unrest inside Iran, Washington’s increasing restrictions on the mullahs and the strengthening of the organized opposition capable of leading popular discontent toward the overthrow of the regime, are critical factors for change.
The time has come for the world to see the true image of Iran; one that rejects hostage-taking and terrorism and instead champions a non-nuclear, democratic and secular republic that respects human rights, gender equality and free-market economics.
Democratic change in Iran is not just necessary, it is also within reach, thanks to decades of relentless struggle and perseverance by the Iranian people and their organized opposition movement. Like other dictatorships, the mullahs cannot hold back the tides of change indefinitely.
Ali Safavi (@amsafavi) is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is dedicated to the establishment of a democratic, secular and non-nuclear republic in Iran.