Iran’s regime won’t return to normal

Iran has been hit hard by the Wuhan virus but, surprisingly, the pandemic is the least of the government’s worries. In addition to rising opposition within Iran, the world is also starting to hold Iran’s leadership to account.

The Iranian regime's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been severely bungled. Now, in another extremely irresponsible move, it has signaled a preference for eschewing foreign-made vaccines in favor of an unproven domestic variant that was recently rushed into production.

There are a number of factors unrelated to Covid-19 that are going to hold Iran back from returning to normal. In fact, any semblance of normalcy had already evaporated long before the coronavirus was even discovered.

For Tehran, the arrival of that virus may have even been a sort of lifeline, since it temporarily distracted attention from a ruined economy and multiple other social and political crises, all of which fueled massive anti-regime protests.

By all accounts, the unmitigated spread of coronavirus infection interfered with nationwide activist organizing that had been accelerating. Had it not been for that, there would have almost certainly been more uprisings like those in January 2018 and November 2019, and even the month before Iranian coronavirus infections were confirmed in February 2020.

Even during the pandemic and with public health concerns, multiple local protests have taken place objecting to everything from water shortages to delayed wages. In a post-pandemic era, the Iranian people will have even more incentive to rise up against the regime than they had in 2019. 

All the issues associated with previous uprisings – economic disaster, Tehran's pillaging of national funds to pay for foreign terrorism and to pursue nuclear weapons, and outrage over a lack of accountability in the face of the regime’s crimes – have worsened. Added to the mix is outrage over the handling of the coronavirus, which opposition sources say has so far claimed the lives of close to 200,000 people and has caused enormous economic pain for the people.

The Iranian people are seeking accountability for the regime's wrongdoing, mismanagement, and crimes. During the uprising of November 2019, an estimated 1,500 people were killed in a matter of days because they asked for regime change. The international community was largely silent.

In 2021, the US will come under new presidential leadership and opportunities will most likely arise for changing overall Western policies in ways that exert more pressure on the theocracy in Iran. These are the other factors that could make a return to normalcy almost impossible for Iran.

There are further signs of trouble for Tehran. In January, a Belgian court will hand down a verdict in the case involving Assadollah Assadi, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat accused of executing an order to blow up a gathering of tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents outside Paris in June 2018. Assadi’s guilt appears firmly established and he faces up to 20 years in prison. He would be the first Iranian diplomat to be formally charged with a terrorist offense.

Another trial will begin in Sweden later this year, involving a former interrogator and torturer at Gohardasht Prison in Karaj, west of Tehran. The defendant, Hamid Noury, is accused of having facilitated and even personally carried out some of the executions at Gohadasht. He was involved in the massacre of political prisoners in Iran in 1988, during which at least 30,000 dissidents were executed and secretly buried in mass graves. Survivors of that massacre and the families of its victims, the overwhelming majority of whom were members and sympathizers of Iran’s principal opposition, have been pursuing justice for more than three decades, but Noury is the first known perpetrator to actually face the prospect of a prison sentence.

For those survivors and for pro-democracy dissidents, the dual court cases represent a rare glimmer of hope that the world community is finally starting to hold the regime accountable for its crimes against humanity. Unlike other nations, the Iranian people's hope for 2021 is that things do not return to normal because normalcy would mean international tolerance for the regime's human rights abuses and terrorism. That is in stark contrast to what the people have struggled for over the past 40 years: holding the regime accountable and replacing it with a democratic, secular, non-nuclear republic.

The Assadi and Nouri cases ought to inspire the new White House and its European allies to coordinate a broader strategy to hold Tehran's murderers accountable. If this happens, the people will be more motivated for an uprising than ever before.

The Iranian people have made every effort to take back control of their country from the theocrats, and they have made remarkable progress. Now policymakers in Europe and the United States should be asked to imagine how much more those people might have been able to accomplish in the presence of meaningful foreign support for their democratic cause. The year 2021 could be the year in which that question is finally answered.

IMAGE: Hassan Rouhani. YouTube screengrab.