Iranian leadership shows its true face

By Claude Salhani

Yet again the Iranian leadership has responded to protests from its citizens with violence. Instead of listening to people’s complaints over rising prices and a failing economy, the government sent out its goon squads to attack, arrest and imprison protesters, with pro-government media calling for capital punishment to be implemented. Such is the “democracy” offered by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Triggered by the recent government decision to raise the price of gasoline by 50%, huge crowds have taken to the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran.  This comes on the heels of already harsh sanctions and difficult economic times.

Some of the protesters have voiced their anger over the government’s interference in foreign conflicts, primarily Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. They have drained away millions of dollars from the Iranian economy.

Fearful that the demonstrations could continue to be easily coordinated, the government shut down access to the internet.

One of the principal positive by-products of the internet is that it has denied authoritarian regimes the monopoly they previously had on the dissemination of information.

The Iranian regimes and those like it are terrified of the internet.

They are afraid of the internet because they cannot control all its aspects. They feel somewhat naked, unable to censure what they don’t like or what they disagree with.

They are ill at ease with individuals being able to think for themselves, to dare to harbour thoughts not transmitted by the government. No independent thinking, if you please.

So they will do exactly what other authoritarian regimes have done in the past when they feared the pressure from their people — from the street. They will try to silence the masses as best they can.

Such is the degree of paranoia that, US intelligence sources said, Iran uses some 35,000 volunteers to monitor all e-mail traffic going in and out of the country.

The mullahs who find themselves at the top echelon of the ruling class in Tehran believe they may have found a quick fix to their worries — simply block all access to internet service, which, alas, they do control. Well almost. Sort of.

Which is it?  Does the government in Iran control the internet? Or not?

Well, the government in Tehran controls the internet no more and no less than other countries control it. What they do control is the point of entry and exit of information into and out of the country. However, there are always ways around the controllers.  For example, if one has access to a cellphone or computer other than one connected through the domestic networks or a satellite telephone, one can manage to connect.

The very reason the internet was created was precisely to allow the uninterrupted flow of information, independent of the government in case of conflict where the major communication centres were disrupted or incapacitated.

But this system, this preoccupation, this thinking of guaranteeing the free flow of information was designed for people who are concerned with the idea of guaranteeing continuous flow of the truth.

It was not designed for authoritarian systems of governance.

By blocking the entire country from access to the internet, Iran is borrowing a page from the book of fallen dictatorships.

Iran is not the first country, nor is it likely to be the last, to attempt to impose strict censorship on its people.

The Iranian leadership should be aware that no barriers, however, can stand today between freedom-yearning populations and the outside world.

As was demonstrated by endless streams of government leaks regarding Iran’s spying activities in the region and the confirmation of its bellicose designs against Saudi Aramco, Tehran’s double talk and plain lying are not impervious to the spotlight of truth. Iran’s clerics might cherish their obsolete ideologies but they cannot keep their populations and much less the rest of the world in the dark about their true designs and blatant failings.

The mullahs are living on borrowed time. They have shown their true face.  It is only a matter of time.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Iran’s protest crackdown the latest in a long line of abuses

by Claude Salhani

Why do government leaders in the West act surprised whenever anti-government protests in Iran are brutally put down by the government’s security forces?
 
 Why does the civilised world watch in silence as conservative circles of influence in Iran show no remorse for the harm caused to their people while  shamelessly demanding capital punishment for anyone daring to voice their frustration at their social and economic hardships.
 
That has been the norm in the Islamic Republic since its founding 40 years ago.
 
Pro-government media are asking for protesters to be hung from cranes, as was frequently done in the early days of Iran’s Islamic revolution.  
 
Western leaders profess to be astonished that such violence could be unleashed on people protesting against rising cost of living and rightfully blaming their government for mismanaging the country’s resources.
 
But isn’t that what the United Nations and United States-imposed sanctions are designed to do? Apply pressure on the people so that they in turn place pressure on the government?
 
Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support of extremism has led to the current standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West.
 
Iran is a rich country, one of the world’s leading oil producers. Properly managed, the country should have no reason to be mired in an economi crisis. 
 
The protests that began last week were sparked by the government’s move to increase gas prices at the pump by 50%. 
 
Gasoline shortages in a country that is the world’s seventh largest oil producer, pumping out some 4,471,000 barrels per day, is difficult to believe. Yet that is the sad reality. 
 
There are two important observations to be made about the recent protests.
 
First, is the absence of anti-Western slogans. In cities across the country where hundreds of protests took place, there were no shouts of “Margbar Amrika, margbar Israel,” (death to America, death to Israel) like in other protest movements. 

In the current demonstrations, the largest since 2017, citizens instead questioned their own government’s economic vision as well as its interference in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine.

The second important point is that security forces intervened very rapidly, an indication that the regime feels it has little slack on its security belt.
 
Western countries are watching attentively, particularly the US, but support for the protest effort has been wavering. 

As Claude Moniquet, a counterterrorism specialist based in Brussels who has been following developments in Iran, points out: “In Europe people demonstrate in support of Palestine, against Islamophobia, against ‘capitalsm,’ and against climate change. However, support for the Iranian people, support for women who want to not be forced to wear the veil, and against repression by the mullahs? Never.”

Forty years after the Islamic Republic’s founding, there are continuing cases of oppression, human rights violations, illegal arrests, kangaroo courts and summary executions.  It’s been 40 years of torture and a long list of unspeakable wrongs committed in the name of the revolution. 
 
With this in mind, it should be no surprise that the regime has attempted to put the protests down with brute force. What lies ahead is uncertain, but what is sure is that the only way that Iranians will eventually get rid of the current regime it’s from within the country.
 

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

The bright side to the Lebanese October revolution

By Claude Salhani

The popular demonstrations in Lebanon that began with euphoria and hope and forced the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri are unlikely to unfold the way the crowds wish.

Drastic changes in the political and social structure of Lebanon, which is what is needed if the demands of the people are to be met, are highly unlikely.

Meaning that the revolution is dead? No, far from it. The revolution is in its infancy. It is only starting. A revolution is a continuous movement. It is ongoing. It is perpetual, otherwise it dies.

It was not only residents of Beirut taking to the streets — so, too, did people in cities around the country. They protested in Sidon, in Tripoli, Tyre and many other locations.

It is likely that some changes will be introduced. However, the demonstrators will soon realise that not all of their demands will be accepted by the establishment. Much to the displeasure of the establishment, it will soon realise that it has no choice but to adapt to the new realities.

Lebanon’s traditional leadership, based along confessional and sectarian — almost tribal-clannish — lines reflecting a quasi-medieval social structure, has led the country to the brink of economic disaster, almost reaching the level of a failed state. This cannot go on.

It is inevitable that some changes as demanded by demonstrators over the last month are going to be met but not all the demands will be addressed and many promises will be broken.

However, in typical Lebanese manner, the president will appoint a new prime minister, who will introduce some new faces to the political arena and will retain some of the establishment’s defenders. Those may be second- or third-tier establishment people who will continue to serve their masters, rather than their country.

Lebanon’s revolution is unlikely to be successful in its first try. This must be seen as a multistep endeavour, which may take decades.

As with almost every major development in Lebanon since its independence, the crisis will have to be resolved through consensus.

There is, however, a bright side to the dark and murky waters of Lebanese politics and some changes to the Lebanese political scene are inevitable.

Many people in Lebanon are realising that, while they may not be as optimistic as they were in the early days of the protests, there may be a silver lining.

No matter whether the demonstrators succeed or fail, politicians will never again dare to steal with impunity as they have so frequently done in the past.

Flagrant disregard of laws and corruption simply because one is powerful enough to get away with it will not disappear entirely but changes of motion set out in the October revolution will make those with bad intentions think twice before committing similar crimes.

The real test — to see how many Lebanese have changed and just how much they have changed — will become apparent at the next elections.

Will the country continue to vote for the same people who took the nation to the brink of the economic meltdown or will they be faithful to the ideals of the October revolution and vote in new faces without the traditional requirement of belonging to a certain religion, group, sect or party?

If Lebanon aims to achieve a true level of democracy, it should strive to have its laws made applicable to all citizens and residents of the country. That includes the Hezbollah-dominated sectarian system of benefits, many of which smack of unfairness and corruption.

In Lebanon, going back to ‘business as usual’ might not be an alternative

by Cllaude Salhani

Protesters in cities and towns across Lebanon took to the streets in a third week of popular protests.

They were armed with demands ranging from the ousting of the prime minister and his cabinet to caring more for the environment as well as a long list of sundry steps they say the country needs to rectify what has gone amiss over the past 30 years since the end of the civil war.

What is noteworthy is the absence from the debate of political parties and religion, the two powerhouses of Lebanese political and social life that had been unavoidable if one hoped to achieve progress in the country.

Perhaps fearful of being left out of the affairs sweeping the land like a sudden storm, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Bechara Rai was quick to make his point during the first week of the protests to make sure that the patriarch and his church retain political influence among the Christian community in Lebanon.

Likewise, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, representing the Shia population in Lebanon, made a televised broadcast during the first week of demonstrations, calling for protesters to cool off and end the protests.

While those remarks were made from the sanctuaries of the respective movements’ headquarters, the mood among the protesters continued in defiance of the establishment.

The feeling among these leaderless movements is that they will continue to protest until their demands are met.

That may end up taking some time because some ministers are dragging their feet, claiming they are having a hard time finding replacements for government leadership. This is a tactic used by ministers reluctant to leave power. Particularly noticeable among them is Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who has high hopes of succeeding his father-in-law.

In the meantime, the demonstrations and continuing strikes are a double-edged sword for both sides. The longer they last, the greater the resentment from the people towards the government. On the other hand, the longer the people get along peacefully, the more they will realise they do not need the protection of a particular political party or churches and mosques to get along.

It should strengthen the democratic principles that many people in Lebanon hold faith and hope in. That this movement is without a leadership structure makes it harder for authorities to crack down on it.

The people who have taken their gripes to the street have done so in a peaceful manner, with a few exceptions in which Iran-backed Hezbollah tried to intimidate protesters.

Almost three weeks into the protests and with no end in sight, the demonstrators remain steadfast and convinced that they shall overcome. Much of that confidence comes from the fact that demonstrators are equipped with something that has been missing in Lebanon for many years: hope. Hope that they can bring about positive change and hope that they will prevail.

The establishment believes the protests will die down and the country will revert to business as usual, at which point its adherents will be able to continue stuffing their pockets with dollars.

This is what one protester said: “They think this will be business as usual. They are wrong and will soon realise that it will not be business as usual.”

“There is a new reality on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli, Saida and other cities and towns and it is beautiful,” another demonstrator said.

For the first time, religion is not a dividing issue separating Christians from Muslims and Muslims from Christians. Many protesters have gone out of their way to embrace their fellow Lebanese, no matter what religion.

We have seen Christians reciting verses of the Quran alongside Muslims and we have seen Muslims saying the rosary alongside Christians.

What drives these young people to engage in protests is their belief that they will come out of this having forced the Lebanese on to a brighter track.

The main obstacle remains the establishment and the old guard who want to keep the old ways. Going back to “business as usual”, however, might not be an alternative.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

In Lebanon, going back to ‘business as usual’ might not be an alternative

By Claude Salhani

Protesters in cities and towns across Lebanon took to the streets in a third week of popular protests.

They were armed with demands ranging from the ousting of the prime minister and his cabinet to caring more for the environment as well as a long list of sundry steps they say the country needs to rectify what has gone amiss over the past 30 years since the end of the civil war.

What is noteworthy is the absence from the debate of political parties and religion, the two powerhouses of Lebanese political and social life that had been unavoidable if one hoped to achieve progress in the country.

Perhaps fearful of being left out of the affairs sweeping the land like a sudden storm, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Bechara Rai was quick to make his point during the first week of the protests to make sure that the patriarch and his church retain political influence among the Christian community in Lebanon.

Likewise, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, representing the Shia population in Lebanon, made a televised broadcast during the first week of demonstrations, calling for protesters to cool off and end the protests.

While those remarks were made from the sanctuaries of the respective movements’ headquarters, the mood among the protesters continued in defiance of the establishment.

The feeling among these leaderless movements is that they will continue to protest until their demands are met.

That may end up taking some time because some ministers are dragging their feet, claiming they are having a hard time finding replacements for government leadership. This is a tactic used by ministers reluctant to leave power. Particularly noticeable among them is Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who has high hopes of succeeding his father-in-law.

In the meantime, the demonstrations and continuing strikes are a double-edged sword for both sides. The longer they last, the greater the resentment from the people towards the government. On the other hand, the longer the people get along peacefully, the more they will realise they do not need the protection of a particular political party or churches and mosques to get along.

It should strengthen the democratic principles that many people in Lebanon hold faith and hope in. That this movement is without a leadership structure makes it harder for authorities to crack down on it.

The people who have taken their gripes to the street have done so in a peaceful manner, with a few exceptions in which Iran-backed Hezbollah tried to intimidate protesters.

Almost three weeks into the protests and with no end in sight, the demonstrators remain steadfast and convinced that they shall overcome. Much of that confidence comes from the fact that demonstrators are equipped with something that has been missing in Lebanon for many years: hope. Hope that they can bring about positive change and hope that they will prevail.

The establishment believes the protests will die down and the country will revert to business as usual, at which point its adherents will be able to continue stuffing their pockets with dollars.

This is what one protester said: “They think this will be business as usual. They are wrong and will soon realise that it will not be business as usual.”

“There is a new reality on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli, Saida and other cities and towns and it is beautiful,” another demonstrator said.

For the first time, religion is not a dividing issue separating Christians from Muslims and Muslims from Christians. Many protesters have gone out of their way to embrace their fellow Lebanese, no matter what religion.

We have seen Christians reciting verses of the Quran alongside Muslims and we have seen Muslims saying the rosary alongside Christians.

What drives these young people to engage in protests is their belief that they will come out of this having forced the Lebanese on to a brighter track.

The main obstacle remains the establishment and the old guard who want to keep the old ways. Going back to “business as usual”, however, might not be an alternative.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Anniversary of Iran hostage crisis marks four decades of repression of dissent, hostility to the West

By Claude Salhani

Forty years after Iranian pro-revolution students besieged the US embassy and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostages, relations between Tehran and the West have hardly improved. 

The 14-month crisis beginning in November 1979 was inspired by an “Islamic revolution” that led Iran on a path of repression and hostility to the West that has fundamentally reshaped its foreign policy. 

Iran’s “revolution” jumpstarted in September 1978 when the army, under the control of Shah Reza Pahlavi, fired on anti-government protesters, killing a number of them.

The slain demonstrators were commemorated at mosques the following Friday when imams stoked the fire among the crowds who emerged onto the streets filled with rage and craving revenge, only to be met by more troops who, again, fired on the crowds.

The scenario was repeated the following Friday when more protesters took to the streets, where more of them were killed and the reprisals continued.

As the crowds grew every week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini fanned the flames from Neauphle Le Chateau, a quiet residential neighbourhood near Paris where he sought refuge after being expelled from Iraq.

In speeches from his sanctuary, the ayatollah called for the overthrow of the shah.

According to a source close to French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the French president phoned the shah and told him the ayatollah was “becoming dangerous” and, if the shah chose to act, Giscard d’Estaing said it could be arranged that French security could be made to overlook certain aspects.

The shah is said to have responded: “Let him shout all he wants. We are not concerned.”

As opposition to the shah grew and Khomeini became more vociferous, the source reported that Giscard d’Estaing cautioned the shah a second time. “This man is really becoming dangerous. We cannot act because he has not threatened the French or France. Again, if you chose to act, we can certainly look the other way,” the French leader said.

Once again the shah refused the offer, saying: “Let him shout all he wants.”

The French were right to worry. As marches, protests and demonstrations in Tehran grew in violence, so too did the pressure mount on the shah to resign.

On January 17, 1979, accompanied by his wife, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran for exile, flying to the United States and Panama, only to be asked to leave for fear of upsetting the mullahs in Iran. He arrived in Aswan, Egypt, the only country that welcomed him, on February 11.

The emperor of emperors — the shahanshah — had become a pariah. He remained in Egypt until his death July 27, 1979.

Reforms introduced by the shah, particularly his policy of separating religion from politics had upset the Shia clergy as well as the powerful bazaaris, considered to be the backbone of Iran’s influential merchants. That, and reports of corruption among the royal family and, above all, the behaviour of his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, were issues he should have dealt with but ignored.

Shortly after the shah’s departure from Iran, the mullahs who had taken over formally abolished the monarchy and declared Iran an Islamic republic.

Thus began a new era in the Middle East. Iran began trying to export its revolution. It became embroiled in a lengthy war with neighbouring Iraq during which Iran lost 500,000 men.

Iran went from being a staunchly pro-Western country that enjoyed cordial relations with the United States and Israel to having tense relations with most, if not all, Western nations, primarily the United States following the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran and the detention of 52 American hostages from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.

Iran further irritated Western powers by its efforts to acquire nuclear technology and capability for military purposes, although the leadership insists that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes. The ayatollahs severed diplomatic relations with Israel, saying “it should be wiped off the map.”

Iran under the mullahs has delved into politics beyond its borders, financing and training militias in Lebanon and Yemen. Seeing itself as a regional superpower, it sent its military as well as its proxy Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, to fight in Syria.

More than forty years into its revolution, the government continues to crack down on dissent. Several popular requests for it to allow greater freedom were brutally suppressed.

Despite claims that some resistance to the mullahs has made headway, there is no sign the regime in Iran is about to change.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Despite Hariri’s resignation, the Lebanese revolt may still flutter and wither away

by Claude Salhani

With the euphoria surrounding Lebanon’s popular demonstrations that left the country at a standstill and grabbed the world’s attention, forcing the prime minister to resign, the big question is: What’s next?

Not counting a few scuffles, the movement has been largely peaceful with citizens from all walks of life gathering in denouncing flagrant government corruption and other ills the country has suffered over the past three decades.

There was a strong sense of hope that things would change this time. Regrettably, in Lebanon, the more things change, the more they are the same.

Or are they?

It took almost two weeks of demonstrations to convince Prime Minister Saad Hariri to announce his resignation. It appears that the power of the people has prevailed with the prime minister resigning and three ministers announcing they were leaving the government.

The resignations come on the heels of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah calling for Hariri not to resign. Sources in Beirut said Nasrallah twice tried to convince Hariri not to quit, saying the protests would eventually die out.

While the protesters may have won the first round in the latest Lebanese debacle, the game is far from over.

Hezbollah represents the largest force in the country with practically unlimited financial and military support from Iran. Hezbollah’s leaders and their Iranian backers are unlikely to raise their hands, accept defeat and join the opposition, as would be the practice in most democracies.

Hezbollah has far too much at stake to accept a political defeat gracefully.

After being hailed as a hero for being the only Arab force to have defeated Israel and ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah today is seen as a villain that will not stop meddling in Lebanon’s domestic affairs on behalf of its master, Iran.

The problem with Hezbollah is that it has gone from helping solve the problem to becoming the problem. The Party of God is too big and too powerful for its own good — as well as for the good of the country.

Its intervention in Syria to help bail out Syrian President Bashar Assad transformed what was supposed to be a national party into a regional powerhouse.

For most Lebanese it was heartwarming to see people from all walks of life, all religious beliefs, all religious denominations and all political parties participate in the protests. It rekindled hope among many Lebanese. Some described this as a new revolution.

Protesters rejoiced when learning of Hariri’s resignation. However, this is but one item on a long list of demands.

Change is inevitable. It will come about sooner or later despite Hezbollah’s stand today.

The Party of God can choose to be pro Lebanon or its members can continue selling their souls to the devil.

Nasrallah’s advice to Hariri was to ignore the protesters who, as days go by and with winter approaching, will lose interest and move on.

That is not the solution.

The solution is getting Hezbollah to join the rest of the country and not insist on being above the law. As long as Hezbollah places foreign interests before the interests of Lebanon, it is hard to see a viable solution.

It is not in the interest of the mullahs governing Iran and pulling Hezbollah’s strings to see sectarianism replaced by an independent, non-sectarian and free society.

Why would Iran and Hezbollah voluntarily cede the power they have gained?

Hezbollah remains the predominant power in Lebanon with 13 seats in parliament and three cabinet posts. Why would it give that up?

Hezbollah said the changes demanded by the demonstrators could push Lebanon into chaos. Nasrallah warned that this could take the country back to a civil war.

Nasrallah may have good reasons to be worried because cracks are showing in Hezbollah’s support base as sympathisers ask why he did not do more to combat corruption in the government.

There is no valid reason why replacing a bunch of corrupt politicians should reignite the civil war unless, of course, the rekindling is provided by Nasrallah and those who do not find it in their interest to have Lebanon on track for prosperity.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.