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What do the protests in Iran mean for the regime?

A 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody which has sparked protests across the country

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A police motorcycle burns in the middle of the street surrounded by cars and smoke.

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country’s conservative dress code, in downtown Tehran, Iran on Sept. 19, 2022.

Associated Press

The enormous mass public demonstrations in Iran could bring a change in regime. The fundamentalist Islamic rulers of the nation must be worried. A large number of cities across the country are experiencing the ongoing protests, though estimates of just how many vary.

The immediate spark for this important development is the troubling death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman of 22, while in police custody. Authorities allegedly arrested her for improper wearing of the headscarf required by the government.

Iran continues to be a focus of frustration for United States foreign policy. The fundamentalist Islamic regime in Tehran has long voiced hostility to Israel as well as the U.S., punctuated from time to time with public threats of apocalyptic destruction.

Consequently, the steady expansion of Iran’s uranium enrichment program causes understandable concern.

The P5+1 formation is the principal international group dealing with Iran. Nations involved are Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — plus Germany.

In November 2013, the group, after considerable challenging diplomatic effort, reached an agreement with Tehran. The accord increased international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions. The Trump administration abruptly ended this nuclear agreement.

Immediately after World War II, Soviet troops occupied northern Iran. The Truman administration successfully pressured Moscow to withdraw. Later, British and CIA operatives overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh.

In 1979, revolutionaries overthrew the pro-U.S. Iran regime and Islamic fundamentalism ascended. This abruptly ended Iran’s previous posture as a close and notably influential American ally. Over the intervening decades, the breach has continued.

After ousting the autocratic Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Islamic militants seized the American embassy, took hostages and held them for months. The lengthy crisis poisoned Tehran-Washington relations and helped Ronald Reagan defeat incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a lengthy eight-year war with Iran.

The 2009 presidential election sparked mass demonstrations against alleged election fraud. Use of cellphones to report the demonstrations revealed broad public discontent. Dictators can no longer completely suppress information, though Tehran is trying.

The shah’s modernization policies over the long term had fostered a relatively well-educated population. There is a sizable middle class. The urban population has been expanding steadily.

Women play influential roles in a wide range of professions. The relatively modern economy — and society — contrast with other nations where fundamentalist Islam plays a major or dominant role.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, remained an interested — and often acutely perceptive — analyst of Iran developments. Until his death in 2017, he regularly noted publicly that the fundamentalist mullahs running the country face very fundamental problems.

Without a new nuclear agreement, sanctions on Iran could eventually destroy the economy. Brzezinski believed Iran could move in the same direction as Turkey. That nation constitutionally is a secular state, and remains a faithful member of NATO, even though a fundamentalist political party controls the presidency.

Nearly a decade before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, former President Richard Nixon in his book “Beyond Peace” argued that invading the provocative Hussein’s Iraq would be a mammoth blunder, leading to expansion of the influence of Iran, our actual regional diplomatic and strategic rival

History and current unfolding events confirm Nixon’s insight, and should guide policy.

Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia.” Contact: acyr@carthage.edu