The Thanksgiving holiday was an opportunity for Americans to reflect upon the good fortune of living in a free nation. Their gratitude may be all the more significant this year, given that we are witnessing people around the world actively fighting for those same blessings.
October was marked by protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and the past two weeks have seen the outbreak of similar, nationwide demonstrations in Iran. Notably, all three protest movements are closely linked, insofar as the failure of democratic institutions in both Iraq and Lebanon has much to do with the deepening influence of the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
This goes to show that Tehran represents the most serious obstacle to democracy in the Middle East as a whole. In striving to export its own system, the Islamic Republic is helping political Islam maintain its stature as the world’s leading ideological challenge to democratic governance. Fortunately, though, the events of recent weeks have made it clear that the people of Iran and surrounding countries have rejected the theocratic alternative, and are prepared to fight for their place in the modern world.
That is something for which residents of the United States and all other democratic nations can be thankful. It bodes well for the forward progress of the entire globe, and it represents the promise of future stability in an area of the world that remains vitally important to Western interests. At the same time, neither of these things can be taken for granted. And recent weeks’ events also make it clear that the Iranian regime and its regional allies will not give up their backward vision without a fight.
Last month, the IRGC was implicated in some of the worst attacks on Lebanese and Iraqi protesters. Iranian snipers have been found murdering pro-democracy activists while positioned on rooftops. And once protests broke out in Iran itself, similar tactics were soon seen there.
Iranian officials have only acknowledged a handful of deaths since the latest popular uprising began on November 15. But Amnesty International has reported that at least 208 were killed, and that the actual figure could be more than twice that. Soon thereafter, Iran’s leading democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), placed the number at more than 600.
The MEK has also reported that over 12,000 activists were arrested within the first 10 days. Tehran recently acknowledged 7,000 arrests. And while this falls well short of the opposition estimates, it is a far cry from the scant 1,000 that judiciary officials were willing to acknowledge earlier. No doubt it has proven difficult for the regime to conceal the extent of the repression at a time when the overcrowding of official detention facilities has reportedly led to elementary schools being re-purposed as temporary jails.
The gradual reconnection of the internet has also made it more difficult for Tehran to hide its efforts to crack down on pro-democracy activism. Although authorities are currently using online resources to broadcast staged pro-government counter-demonstrations and to otherwise spread their own propaganda, countless ordinary Iranians have also responded to the call for documentary evidence of the past two weeks’ repression. Photographs and videos from the streets of every major Iranian city and town suggest that the numbers of reported arrests, injuries, and fatalities are likely to continue growing for some time.
The White House has roundly condemned the Iranian regime for these things and for what may have been the largest and most sophisticated internet blackout in history. But there is still more to be done in order to prevent the further loss of life. And also as Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), called for, the UN should dispatch a fact-finding delegation to Iran to establish the real scope of the regime’s crimes.
Among those calling upon Iranian activists to share their accounts of the unrest is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also promised that the US would expose and sanction Tehran’s abuses in response.
This is as it should be. The US owes thanks to the Iranian people for promoting and defending democracy in a place where it faces a particular threat. But that gratitude should also translate into concerted action to help them achieve their long-stifled aspirations for liberty.
This isn’t to say that Western powers ought to intervene directly in the ongoing conflict between Iran’s theocratic regime and its democratic population. It must remain absolutely clear that the people of Iran are charting their own future. But the US and its allies can help clear the way for them to do so by keeping the world’s attention focused on Tehran’s abuses, holding the regime’s officials accountable for their crimes, thus promoting the regime’s isolation and weakening the institutions it relies on to suppress its subjects.
In this way, the international community can help promote democracy not just in Iran itself but all across the surrounding region. When the mullahs’ repressive tactics are exposed and confronted, the existing movements will be strengthened in all of its areas of influence, including but not limited to Iraq and Lebanon.
Imagine what those same peoples will be capable of once it is clear that they have that support, and once their shared aspirations are shielded by the worst of Iran’s political repression. Is it too much to hope that by this time next year, a much broader segment of the Middle East will finally be able to share Americans’ thankfulness for the blessings of self-governance and freedom from fear when expressing dissent against their governments?
Col. Cantwell served in several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, he was the commander of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, home to thousands of Iranian dissidents.
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