The events of December 2017 were a turning point in modern Iranian history. Incomparable to the protests in 2009, which were made up of “reformers” (known as Tehran’s educated, middle class), this recent demonstration was different as it was completely secular, civil and socially geared against the totality of the Iranian Regime — not religious. Unlike those of the past, this time around, at least 85 Iranian cities took part in the demonstration, making it the largest since the Iranian Revolution.
“The oppression on Kurdish people in Iran rests on two pillars,” explained Secretary General Mustafa Hijri, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, during recent comments at a policy lunch at the London Center in Washington, DC. “The current political system and its power, and the national oppression of so-called intellectualists (reformists) of the Islamic Republic.” As a result, there is clearly the denial of the national identity of Kurds.
Under the Republic, Iranian Kurdistan has been dealt great difficulties. Iranian Kurdistan is heavily militarized by the Iranian State, with the inclusion of checkpoints, police killings, and tight security. As a result, Kurdistan has the lowest number of educated and employed within all of Iran.
For example, only two factories exist in Kurdistan, yet they were established by those outside of Kurdistan, and only worked by non-Kurds; this has led to economic exploitation. Land mines have deprived Kurdish lives, as well as ruined lands and their ability to be cultivated. For reasons like these, 15,000+ Kurds migrate to central parts of Iran annually, in search of employment. Kurdistan has the ability to be a great place of tourism and economic activity, but because of the regime, they are denied every opportunity to better themselves. Amongst the 10 Iranian cities with the highest rate of unemployment, six of them are in Kurdistan.
While Iran has had protests and civil unrest in the past, the current unrest that began in Kurdish territories has now spread throughout the rest of the country. 80-85 percent of Iran is not in support of the current regime. While they may look for a regime change, Iran’s youth is looking for more. They are looking to become Westernized, with access to Internet, social media, “rock music,” etc.
The secretaries general expressed that much of their optimism comes from President Trump’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), yet are quite disappointed in the response from others involved, in particular Europeans. There must be renewed sanctions, however more importantly, they must be smart sanctions. Even though the sanctions may hurt in the short term, in the long term, they are a necessary evil. There is no doubt that the regime will cheat on the sanctions — even possibly through Baghdad — it is all par for the course and should not deter from implementation.
Secretary General Abdullah Mohtadi, of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, told us that the JCPOA shows exactly what the Iranian people do not what to see; the fact that it actually went above and beyond to do more harm to the Iranian people, the region, and quite frankly the world. The JCPOA has allowed Iran to increase terrorism and instability within the Middle East, even after the defeat of ISIS. The United States withdrawing from the deal is the start, but now, the rest of the international community must follow.
Russia has used Iran to advance its regional goals, including pressure on the United States. This one-sided relationship can be seen by Russia “urging” foreign fighters to get out of Syria — including Iran — showing that the Russian/Iranian alliance is not all that strong and have different views on Israel. It is clear that this relationship has been, and will continue to be an exploitative one.
It was important to understand that there is a belief among the opposition that Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries would be willing to play a vital role, supportive or otherwise in combating the Iranian threat, however they must have U.S. leadership. Mr. Trump began the leadership role with his participation at the May 2017 Riyadh summit by his call for an Arab NATO (aka Gulf and Red Sea Treaty Organization).
As we look forward to a regime change, it is important to have clarity as to what will replace it. Currently, opposition groups are working, but still do not have a clear picture of what the alternative will be. If the U.S. is serious enough to help in the fight for a true democracy, they need to support the new regime whenever it arises. The opposition is not looking for U.S. boots on the ground, but for assistance in peaceful change in Tehran.
This can come through providing true access to the Internet, access and training in the use of social media, and providing alternatives to state-run television. The mobilization of new recruits is a big deal. “This is the beginning of a new era in Iranian politics,” says Secretary-General Mustafa Hijri, and the United States needs to empower the opposition and its youth, allowing for a regained sense of optimism.
• Eli M. Gold is the senior vice president of the London Center for Policy Research.