The targets for the lethal bullets may be varied – Shia or Sunni, moderate or radical, pro-western or anti-imperialist – but the regimes that fire those bullets against their own people are identical. The Libyan regime in Tripoli used to call for world revolution before it opted to patrol the EU’s borders (1).
Governments of very different shades find common ground in the same disinformation. Iran has claimed that the Arabs’ democratic revolt heralded an Islamic revival, inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution. Israel repeated this claim, and pretended to be alarmed. But when the Iranian opposition gathered to celebrate the demonstrations in Cairo, the ruling theocracy opened fire on the crowd. The Israeli army does not massacre unarmed civilians – unless they are Palestinian (1,400 dead in Gaza two years ago) – but Binyamin Netanyahu does not welcome young Arabs’ demands for freedom any more than Iran does. Israel fears it might lose excellent partners in power, autocratic but pro-American. Its only recourse then would be to cry wolf against Iran.
But tensions with Israel and international sanctions enable the Iranian regime, emboldened by the weakening of regional rivals Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to play the nationalist card. It sees this as useful, since the 2009 Green Movement has not succumbed to ceaseless repression. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hoped the vaccine of hanging and torture had eradicated the virus of opposition. Sadly for him, the Arab revolt and the humiliating contrast between a highly educated population and an archaic political system undermine the dubious legitimacy of his regime. Rather than follow the Libyan example and order the air force to machinegun the crowd, the ruling elite has unleashed the murderous demands of its followers. When the opposition mustered its forces, 222 of the 290 members of the Iranian parliament called for Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, former government dignitaries under house arrest for opposing the Supreme Leader, to be brought to trial. On 18 February, Tehran staged a demonstration where people could “express their hatred, wrath and disgust against the savage, repugnant crimes of the leaders of sedition and their hypocritical and monarchist allies” (2). As “Zionist agents” or “hooligans”, they face the death penalty.
The regime may lack imagination but it is not without supporters. And western condemnations carry no weight. Nevertheless, it may not survive long-term. As the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, observed during a visit to Tehran last month: “When heads of state do not pay attention to the needs of their nation, the people take over.”
(1) See Alain Morice and Claire Rodier, “The EU’s expulsion machine”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, June 2010.
(2) Notice published by the Islamic Propagation Coordination Council, Tehran; quoted by AFP, 16 February 2011.