The renewed pressure on Iran has emboldened hardliners within the country and pushed reformists against the wall.
The strong anti-Iran rhetoric of the US administration has shocked and confused Iranians who have suffered long years of economic sanctions. Many had invested heavily in the hope that the Iran nuclear deal would relieve them from isolation opening Iran to world markets, bringing in much needed foreign investment, economic prosperity and jobs.
On May 8 the US President, Donald Trump, ruptured that hope when he tore up the nuclear deal signed in July 2015. Two weeks later US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, spoke about 12 demands that Iran has to fulfil in order to negotiate another nuclear deal with Washington. That was supposed to be the first articulation of US new policy towards Iran. But even some of the top US analysts of Iran described it as no-policy and no-strategy, but rather “a grab bag of wishful thinking wrapped in a thinly veiled exhortation for regime change in Iran”.
Most Iranians are now expecting typical US reactions like regime change through some unknown or unviable opposition group, or a military attack perhaps via the mediation of Israel. These are not conspiracy theories either.
During the nationwide protests in Iran in January, Trump’s series of tweets sounded like he was calling for regime change. The US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has also spoken about regime change unashamedly hoping the US could “celebrate in Iran the toppling of the regime”.
In the past he has advocated a joint attack by Israel and the US on Iran's nuclear facilities, combined with "vigorous American support for Iran's opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran."
The hardliners in Iran are jubilant and angry at the same time. They are angry because an increasing number of them have been put on new US sanctions list. Yet at the same time the threat from the US has given them the excuse they’ve been waiting for to sideline the moderate president Hassan Rouhani and move centre stage.
And Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave them his blessing by blaming Rouhani: "Well, the honourable officials made serious efforts; they sweated profusely over it, but they failed," he said in a speech one day after the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, called for boosting Iran’s defence capabilities: “the US move proved that America is against Iran’s defence and missile power and is using Iran’s peaceful nuclear program just as an excuse.”
These developments at the top of the political spectrum have only brought more anxiety for the majority of Iranians who do not support either the US administration’s regime change ideas or the Islamic Republic’s repressive policies. Yet they do not know where to turn and how to get out of the dilemma.
Over the past forty years the reform movement has failed time and again in establishing any meaningful change in the political structure. Corruption, economic mismanagement, political bickering and repressive measures against a variety of reform-seeking opposition groups have caused deep resentment amongst the population culminating in almost daily demonstrations and strikes over the past year.
Any residue of hope through the JCPOA has now been dashed and that moderate/centrist/reformist political block has no choice but to move to the right to unite with the hardliners if it is to survive.
There are two more jubilant groups, mainly based outside Iran, celebrating the White House tweeted policy for regime change.
One group is those Iranians seeking a more modern secular leadership. They are idealising the powerful image of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was a vigorous moderniser. There are regular blogs and tweets about him. But the group has never presented a viable strategy for change or introduced a leadership figure.
Reza Shah’s grandson, the Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who lives in the United States, has capitalised on that popularity and is joining the bandwagon of #IranRegimeChange, except that he wants an internal regime change through civil disobedience. He has a relatively small following inside Iran and the idea of monarchy belongs to Iran’s past and does not attract those who want real change.
Another jubilant group outside Iran is the Mujahedin Khalegh Organisation (MKO). Although only recently taken out of the US terror list MKO seems to be receiving sufficient funds from unknown sources to invite the likes of John Bolton and the former New York mayor, Rudi Giuliani, to its annual conventions to make speeches wishing them victory.
MKO is mostly active in the social media with a variety of people using several hashtags such as #FreeIran2018 or #Iranuprising , #IranProtests but it has hardly any support inside Iran. Most Iranians have never forgiven MKO for siding with Iraq to fight against Iran. There are in fact several hashtags against them, such as #nomojahed or #shutupPompeo.
It is very likely that these groups receive support from the United States to do what they can to cause the required instability inside Iran for that regime change. It may all be done in the name of “the long-suffering people of Iran” or in the name of “peace and security” as Pompeo’s tweet and Trump’s speech say. They even use the legitimate strikes and demonstrations by a variety of workers or civil rights groups inside Iran for their own benefit but there is no such connection.
Yet Iranians know that Pompeo’s “strongest sanctions in history" to "crush" the regime would only make their own lives far more difficult.
They also know the history of regime change both from their own experience of the 1953 US-Brit coup and from the more recent US invasions of their neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan. They know that US meddling would bring war and bloodshed.
They know that what they have at the present moment may be the lesser of all evils.
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