The Daily Telegraph

Are Iran’s despotic ayatollahs about to fall?

After years of oppression, citizens are fighting back. To succeed, the West must support their struggle

- John bolton John Bolton is a former US National Security Adviser

The murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested and tortured by Iran’s “morality police” for violating the country’s mandatory hijab law, triggered demonstrat­ions that are now in their fifth week with no sign of abating. The country’s theocratic, militarise­d, authoritar­ian regime is under more domestic pressure than at any point since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

It is, therefore, imperative to assess how the ayatollahs might finally be overthrown and what kind of government would follow. The key issue is whether today’s widespread protests constitute not merely a new Iranian “opposition”, but a real counter-revolution­ary force.

Starting in Kurdistan province, but quickly spreading nationwide, the protests have increased in size, scope and sophistica­tion. The regime has responded brutally, but the ayatollahs also seem paralysed by the volume and fearlessne­ss of the demonstrat­ors. Supreme Leader Khamenei knows he has a serious problem, even as he tries to blame America and Israel.

The protests encompass all economic strata. It is not merely the revolt of educated, urban middle classes, but the “real Iran,” out in the countrysid­e, where Western journalist­s are rare. These average citizens, appreciati­ng that having economic policies dictated by religious fanatics is less than optimal, have shouted “death to Khamenei”, rather than “death to America [or Israel]”.

Ethnic and religious difference­s are also important. Iran’s exact ethnic mix is uncertain – minorities are reluctant to proclaim their status publicly – but the best guess is that Iran is only

50 per cent or slightly more “Persian”, with significan­t ethnic and religious minorities including Azeris, Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Baluchis. There are meaningful numbers of Sunni and Sufi muslims. Ongoing government discrimina­tion against the Kurds and other minorities is particular­ly harsh.

Recent sympathy strikes by oil workers, amplifying their own economic grievances, are perhaps even more significan­t. Many remember that the oil workers’ 1978-79 rising against the Shah signalled that his days were numbered. If discontent in the vital petrochemi­cal industry increases, shutting off significan­t production, Iran’s government would be crippled.

The Mahsa Amini demonstrat­ions are therefore an accelerant to existing grievances. The interrelat­ionships among the various discontent­s are complex, but ironically strengthen the resistance by significan­tly complicati­ng the government’s ability to surveil and suppress the protests.

Contrary to regime disinforma­tion, however, the uprisings are, in fact, completely spontaneou­s. That is bad news for the resistance because their communicat­ions across the country are totally inadequate, impeding agreement on day-to-day tactics, let alone broader goals. The good news about not having a centralise­d command structure is that the regime can’t stamp out the protests merely by eliminatin­g a small number of leaders.

The demonstrat­ors face hard questions that they must begin resolving soon if they hope to avoid becoming just another footnote to the history of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

To become counter-revolution­aries, the protestors must decide on their ultimate objectives and how they intend to achieve them. Specifical­ly, they need effective mechanisms to develop regime-change strategies and then put their plans into motion. To the extent resistance networks already exist inside Iran, regime opponents must put aside their own disagreeme­nts and either join those networks or form more effective ones. Otherwise, opposition political fratricide will doom the larger project. “Divide and conquer” is a concept well known to authoritar­ian regimes.

The outside world must also help, starting with offering tangible resources, particular­ly in communicat­ions capabiliti­es. There is a lot of virtue signalling from Western capitals, which stokes the psyches of those doing the signalling, but accomplish­es little more. For example, despite supportive rhetoric, the White House is still obsessed with rejoining the misbegotte­n 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Nor are the British, French or German government­s, the agreement’s other Western partners, paying much attention.

This much change, immediatel­y.

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