Over the past several days, the theocratic oligarchy which has controlled Iran for the past four decades has seen itself teetering on the verge of open rebellion. What little attention these protests – unprecedented in scale – have received in mainstream media thus far has focused on the regime’s tone-deaf decision to hike gas prices. That remarkably foolish decision may well be the death knell of this increasingly backward theocracy, particularly since it was brought about by increased sanctions being tightened against Iranian exports of oil.
Yet these protests did not begin with justifiable rage against yet another decision by the regime to prioritise its support of terrorism at the expense of its citizens, nor did they stem from similar protests that have begun in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. History is rarely fair, and root causes of massive upheaval may be said to typically be misrepresentative, but to those charting this course of protests across Iran, the catalyst was when a young and otherwise healthy Ahwazi nationalist poet, Hassan Haidari, died soon after being released from his latest bout of Iranian imprisonment. Coupled with the regime’s absolute refusal to conduct any autopsy, or even to permit his family to witness his burial, it appears highly likely that he was poisoned.
Young Haidari’s untimely death rekindled the spark of the Ahwazi people, whose ancestral homeland – currently referred to as Khuzestan and known by its people as Ahwaz or Arabistan, – is home to the overwhelming majority of Iran’s oil and mineral resources. As this author recently had the honour of presenting at a national academic conference, the Ahwaz region, irrespective of how it is referred, has long been known to comprise the potential Achilles Heel to Iran for at least the past 70 years.
And so, these protests have a perverse symmetry on several levels. Protests first erupted over the state-sanctioned murder, on ethnic grounds, of a man whose people have lived in what has proved to be an oil- and a mineral-rich homeland for at least two millennia, as per the likes of Herodotus and Josephus. Meanwhile, the country is under heavy international sanctions as the direct result of its desire to ‘export the (Khomeneist) Revolution’, which is to say significant financing of terrorist groups and rogue states across the Middle East, and beyond if it can achieve it. In turn, Iranian citizens of all ethnicities have long chafed at their increasing poverty, and have arisen against the export of oil revenue to benefit the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. And so too have other long-suppressed ethnic minorities across the breadth of Iran started to respond with force, whether they be the Kurds and Azeri to the north or the Baluchistan is to the south. They and the Ahwazis, more than anyone, know that the regime will not hesitate to use widespread lethal force against them. Indeed, the regime has been singularly notable for its utter lack of respect for the rule of law, both internal and international.
It is true that reports are hard to come by at this point. That is due primarily to the regime’s predictable decision to effectively shut down the internet, especially social media. Despite its efforts, however, video and photographic evidence have managed to trickle out, and it is damning. Dozens have been killed in the streets, and arrests have already exceeded a thousand at the time of this writing – and it is important to recall that being arrested by this regime for any sort of political reason is overwhelmingly likely to result in torture, with permanent maiming and death all too often occurrences.
Simply put, the government that has controlled Iran with an iron fist for 40 years is teetering on the precipice, and that leaves the rest of the world at a crossroads. It is not necessary for any nation or coalition to intervene, or to effect the much-maligned ‘regime change’ that has become anathema in many circles across ideological gulfs.
What is unquestionably necessary is that the nations of the world do not sit back yet again as bystanders, content to issue toothless resolutions and vague promises of eventual legal proceedings.
And to those who trot out the old bromide about risking further conflict, it is already here and cannot be avoided by kowtowing to the autocracies of the region, whether newly constituted as in Erdogan’s Turkey, or the misbegotten spawn of Ayatollah Khomenei. It is better to recall what happened when the world stood idly by and allowed Mussolini’s Italy to conquer Ethiopia in 1935. This author is not saying anything new by reminding that the groundwork for World War II did not begin when Chamberlain backed away from Nazi aggression and permitted the takeover of the Sudetenland, that Nazi aggression occurred in the first instance because of how fascist Italy had gotten away with its conquest mere years before.
These days it is all too easy to see generalised comparisons to Nazi or other fascist ideology thrown about, but in this case, the Iranian regime bears all the hallmarks of those repugnant ideologies, and cannot be permitted to carry out the campaign of brutal repression it has begun. It is truly a moral imperative that must not be ignored, or lost in the smokescreen that Iran and its admittedly influential lobbyists have raised.
But the matter does not end there. In a Panglossian utopian world, perhaps moral imperatives are enough to motivate nations. In our actual world, nations tend inevitably to act in their own perceived best interests. And it is to these interests that I make this appeal.
In the early 20th Century, the autonomous Arabistan relied upon British assurances of support; when the then-ascendant incipient Pahlavi dynasty represented an equally or better option to preserve British petroleum interests, Sheikh Khaz’al rapidly found himself stripped of power, influence, and ultimately his life, even as independent Ahwaz ceased to be. Britain was an interested bystander, content to allow events to play out once its interests were to be protected either way.
Today, China controls and/or benefits overwhelmingly from Iran’s oil, as well as from the effects of international sanctions against the regime. Unlike most nations, China’s foreign policy has been to pointedly ignore internal issues of any kind so long as they do not affect its vested interests, most crucially of which is ensuring continued oil supply. Its economic and diplomatic strengths have been amplified by its otherwise unique ability to systematically consolidate control over the majority of Iran’s oil output at otherwise impossibly beneficial terms.
China’s perceived best interests are inextricably intertwined with continued oil from Iran, regardless of whether it is controlled by the current regime or some successor willing to negotiate. This is not as stirring or noble as an appeal to international morality, but at the end of the day, it will be necessary for China to perceive that its continued interests are not best served by propping up this incompetent and teetering regime. For China, remaining a bystander during these protests could well prove disastrous to its long-term access to uninterrupted oil.
The dust has not yet settled, and the regime’s response has not yet been fully brought to bear, but enough is clear to assert that Iran – and the region – is at a potentially epochal crossroads. And irrespective of whether we term it as a moral irrespective of whether we term it as a moral imperative or national interest, none of the nations of the world can sit back and remain bystanders.
Aaron Eitan Meyer, a graduate of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center and New School University, and has previously served as a non-profit research director, and as assistant director of the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum.