Can Iranian Activism Succeed Where Rouhani Failed?

iranian activismThe post-JCPoA backlash against Rouhani should serve as a wake-up call for Iranian activists in Iran: the changes he promised won’t come from the presidency, the government, the parliament or the Supreme Leader – it will come only from the people.

Since the elections that brought Rouhani to the presidency, Iranian activists were stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Rouhani was not only categorized in Iran and around the world as a moderate, he also had promised far-reaching changes in foreign policy, in the economy and in human rights and freedoms. Protesting against Rouhani, therefore, would only weaken him and strengthen the hardliners who waited for him to stumble. For years, Iranian activism was sporadic and personal: no mass demonstrations , only isolated campaigns to support someone whose rights had been trampled on.

But the situation post-JCPoA is different in many ways: first and foremost, Rouhani has been demoted by none other than Khamenei himself: As the signing of the JCPoA loomed closer, Khamenei re-issued his “red lines” which, in some cases, contradicted the JCPoA itself and then restarted his anti-US campaign for fear of “Western infiltration”. Within weeks, he had taken over the implementation of the nuclear deal and Iran’s foreign policy off of Rouhani’s hands into his own. The hardliners took this move as a green light to bash Rouhani and the subsequent crackdown on Iranian activists was set in motion and in one of the strangest paradoxes ever, it was the Iranian people, the same people who voted for Rouhani who were paying a personal price for the signing of the JCPoA.


The Crackdown Grows Daily

Anyone who is seen to be criticizing the regime, in any form is quickly targeted by the IRGC: Journalists, poets, singers, bloggers, artists and activists were arrested along with numerous family members who came to visit their imprisoned dear ones. Beyond the harsh imprisonment itself, some of these “criminals” will faces the dreaded fate of interrogation, torture, sham trials, prison and perhaps even the gallows.

The hardliners feel the pressure of the upcoming parliamentary elections in February and the last thing they want are more moderates and liberals in parliament. The crackdown is meant to send a clear message to all the Iranians – Rouhani was a one-time slip and even he was “taken care of” by Khamenei himself. As such, any form of criticism against the regime, already deemed a sin by a mullah close to Khamenei, would not be tolerated. The Iranian population and the world would see a unified Iran following a unified regime based on the unified beliefs of the Islamic Revolution.

The hardliners only mirrored their Supreme Leader: a revolutionary at heart, Khamenei would not allow Western culture, ideas, brands and beliefs to contaminate the purity of the Islamic Revolution. He understood that it would be impossible to keep on chanting “Death to America” as a rally call to the faithful while they watched American sitcoms, wore Gap, chatted on facebook, drove Chevrolets and drank Coke. Khamenei is paranoid, but in this case, he is justifiably so.

The split between Khamenei and Rouhani only began to be seen in the last six months and specifically in two speeches: his “red lines” speech in which he dictated his demands to the Iranian negotiation team and his “foreign infiltration” speech in which he banned any negotiations and trade with the US. Both speeches were warning signs to Rouhani (it was either Khamenei’s way or the byway) and encouraging signs to hardliners.


Activism Grows Daily

Social activism has many faces and many levels of engagement: the range is huge from the “slacktivism” of clicking “like” or “share” on social media to bloody protests in the streets. Any statement which places the Iranian citizen in juxtaposition with the Iranian regime is seen as activism by the regime and is therefore activism.

The range of Iranian activism is huge:

There are is “sharing picture activism” as exemplified by the #dontjudgechallenge campaign which encourages people to share pictures from their ID’s besides updated portraits of themselves and the #mystealhyfreedom campaign which encourages women to share pictures of themselves without their hijabs are worrying the regime.

There are petitions such as the one signed by ninety Iranian journalists to free their four arrested colleagues, or human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, or women’s rights activist Bahareh Hedayat, or poets Fatima and Mehdi Mousavi and many many more.

Even the Tehran symphony Orchestra found a way to support activism by refusing to play a concert after hardliners objected to women musicians playing on stage.

And then there are the street protests which, for now, are run mainly by minorities in Iran such as the Azeri march following a racial slur on a children’s show on Iran’s state TV or Kurds who took to the street to protest the death of a young Kurdish maid who jumped out of a hotel window to her death to escape being raped by an Iranian official.

The road to freedom isn’t a straight highway – specially in Iran where the highways are blocked by the regime – and freedom is a destination that activists can reach through many paths. It is up to the Iranian people as well as human rights supporters from all over the world to stand up and face the oppressive regime.


The Time Is Now

There are, to date, approximately 900 prisoners in Iran whose only crime was to exercise their fundamental freedoms as citizens – the right to pray, to express their thoughts and feelings, to gather and to protest. Who is guilty for the imprisonment of these people? The easy answer would be “the regime” or the “IRGC” or even “Khamenei”.

Before you answer, let’s go back 50 years to the human rights movement in the US. On March 3ed, 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered a eulogy for Jimmy Lee Jackson, a Negro activist who was killed on “Bloody Sunday” by state troopers in Selma, Alabama. It’s a long and moving speech but the gist of it was simple: Yes, Jimmy was killed by a gun fired by a state trooper but this state trooper had “accomplices” – the sheriffs who broke the law “in the name of the law”, politicians who pandered hatred and racism to their voters, the government who chose not to protect civil rights but sent American soldiers to Vietnam, the white ministers who “remained silent” to racism and the cowardly Negros who “passively accept the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice”.

So, who is responsible for their imprisonment? It isn’t just the “bad guys” in the regime. It is all of the people who are allowing such a regime to trample on the basic freedoms and human rights of Iranians. Khomeini could never have led the Islamic Revolution in 1979 without the support of the Iranian people. It is now up to the Iranian people, once again, to rise up and demand their rights from a regime which is more “selectively obsessed with the oppressed“, which is more interested in supporting Assad and “freeing” Shiite Bahrainis and Yemenites instead of supporting and freeing its own populace.

Iranian activists must find a common cause with two very large groups of Iranian citizens who are systematically oppressed: women and religious minorities.

Women are probably the largest group of oppressed Iranians and they are discriminated against legally and socially – they are under strict dress code laws, are banned from watching sports, are severely under-represented in government offices, are last in line for vaccines etc…

Religious minorities make up for approximately 39% of the Iranian population: these include Azeris, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and many more. All are persecuted by the regime in one way or another.

A “coalition” of activists, women and religious minorities would send a clear message to the regime: Game over and time for a restart.


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