Is this Iran’s ‘Chernobyl moment’?

Published by the New Arab
Months before Ukrainian passenger plane PS752 was shot down over the Iranian skies, another Ukraine-linked historical disaster had preoccupied Iranians.

The HBO mini-series, ‘Chernobyl’, which narrates the 1986 nuclear plant disaster in Soviet Ukraine, had fans all over the world, but it was particularly popular in Iran, where people had no problem identifying what they saw in the series: A rotten state losing its most basic capacity; safeguarding the lives of its citizens.

Despite a capitalist economy, the Islamic Republic has many uncanny similarities to the Soviet-style regimes of the 20th century. The opposition has long found parallels in the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellites – and in processes that brought them down. There has long been a quest for the emergence of an Iranian Lech Walesa or, perhaps, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The shooting down of the plane is now being called a “Chernobyl moment” by many critics of the Tehran regime. If the 1986 disaster cast a light on all that was rotten in the state of Soviet communism, the plane crash in Iran has come to epitomise all that is wrong with the Islamic Republic.

Many authoritarian regimes, such as the People’s Republic of China, claim to derive their legitimacy from competence. The Tehran regime, on the other hand, has shown not only gross incompetence but also wanton disregard for the lives of ordinary Iranians. In contrast, on the very same night that the plane was shot down, Iran made sure that its missile attacks on Iraqi bases led to no injury for US soldiers.

That the regime eventually admitted to its guilt in shooting down the plane was perhaps calculated to impress some critics, but it failed to quell the public anger for a handful of reasons.

First, the admission only came after immense pressure from civil society, and followed three days of persistent lies, denials, conspiracy theories and threats by officials, including those of the supposedly pro-reform minded President Hassan Rouhani.

Second, the highest authority in the country, the commander-in-chief, Ayatollah Khamenei, refused to break with his long record of not accepting responsibility. He did not apologise, or offer to meet the victims, nor did he show one tenth of the grief and concern exhibited by Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who lost more than 60 of his citizens (mostly dual national Iranian-Canadians) on the flight.

Third, nobody in the government resigned or lost their jobs in the aftermath. Fourth, the public admission of guilt was quickly followed by other actions that show it’s business as usual for the Islamic Republic.

On Saturday, when the regime’s public admission of guilt finally came, protests broke out and were quickly repressed. But for three days in a row, the cities of Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Yazd, Babol, Rasht, Hamedan and Borujerd have all seen street protests.

You’d think that the embattled regime might show some sensitivity in light of such a tragedy. Nothing of the sort. It has gone back to its familiar playbook – attacking the protesters with tear gas, live ammunition and physical baton attacks. One friend of mine – a young professional in her late-20s – now has displaced a rib as a result of baton attacks, just because she took part in a peaceful event last night.

Unlike the two rounds of protests in January 2018 and in late 2019 which happened mainly in smaller cities and were led by the downtrodden, the 2020 protests are being led by middle class elements and students who could easily relate to the victims of the plane crash. Many were young professionals and university researchers or instructors – part of the country’s massive brain drain of recent years.

Significantly, the slogans have centered on Ayatollah Khamenei, and the demand for his resignation has become central. “The incompetent leader must resign” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “death to dictator,” the popular slogan of the 2009 movement, but it’s in some ways more powerful due to its specificity.

Khamenei’s aura of absolute power has been eroded by many now daring to call for his resignation. The demand for his resignation was actually pioneered in summer 2019, after 14 political activists called for it in a letter. It has now been echoed by Mehdi Karroubi, a detained leader of the 2009 movement, and Faezeh Hashemi, a popular former MP and daughter of Ayatollah Rafsanjani, a founding father of the Islamic Republic – and an archival of Khamenei – who died a mysterious death in 2017.

The circle of those publicly breaking with the regime is ever widening. Celebrities who are often hesitant in supporting anti-regime protests have been more outspoken this time around. Kimia Alizadeh, a Taekwondo athlete who is the only Iranian women to have ever won an Olympic medal, defected to the Netherlands. In an emotional Instagram post, she declared herself as “not a hero but one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.”

Tarane Alidoosti, one of the country’s most popular actors, and star of the Oscar-winning ‘Salesman’, by Asghar Farhadi, also posted Instagram to declare what many have been feeling, “We are not citizens. We never were. We are millions of captives.”

In the face of such mass discontent, the regime has picked the strategy of iron fist. Ebrahim Rayisi, the conservative head of judiciary, has promised to crack down on protests. The state broadcaster, which is controlled by hardliners, has openly mused if it wasn’t better to have hidden the truth about the plane, “since it is now being misused”.

In the midst of all this, the Guardian Council – the establishment body tasked with vetting candidates for the parliamentary elections which are scheduled to take place next month – has disqualified more than 90 sitting MPs, including those from the conservative camp such as Tehran Ali Motahhari.

The current parliament has a pro-Rouhani majority and a few loud voices against abuses of the regime, such as Tehran MPs Mahmood Sadeqi and Parvane Salahshoori.

Salahshoori, a female MP, had refused to register and Sadeqi is among the many who have been disqualified. Khamenei had previously declared the need for a parliament led by “devout and revolutionary youth,” seen mostly as his more fanatical youth-wing supporters. But the Guardian Council, whose 12 members are all directly or indirectly appointed by the leader, seems to have made sure of that by banning all competition.

As the political space erodes further; peoples’ standard of living is in free fall due to US-imposed sanctions and economic mismanagement; and gross the incompetence of the authorities is on full display. Public anger and protests are bound to go on. But will they lead to change?

History, in Iran and elsewhere, teaches us that an unpopular and incompetent regime can go on for a long time. The Iranian regime is unlikely to be abandoned anytime soon by its limited yet solid base in society and the armed forces.

For the “Chernobyl moment” to lead to a “collapse” moment, an alternative political leadership must emerge. One that is able to wed the working-class demands of 2018 and 2019 to the middle-class protests of 2020. That remains a tall order, and a scenario that Ayatollah Khamenei will surely make it his business to prevent at all costs.

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