By Gwynne Dyer
“Death to [fill in the blank]!” has been the slogan of choice chanted by Iranian protesters since the glory days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. (“Death to the Shah!”, “Death to America!”, etc.) It’s now forty-three years later, however, and the content has changed.
The most popular chant of the young men and women (mostly under 25) who are now going to the streets all over Iran is “Zan! Zendegi! Azadi!” (“Women! Life! Freedom!”). ‘Women’ comes first because it was the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman arrested for letting too much hair show under her hijab that set the protests off.
The revolt is led by young women, to the extent that it has leaders at all, and they are still protesting after a month despite around 250 people killed by the regime’s forces and 12,500 arrested.
Moreover, these protests are targeting the theocratic dictatorship as a whole, not just its various misdeeds. “Death to the dictator” or “Death to Khamenei!”, they chant, meaning Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power since 1989.
What they face, unfortunately, is the willingness of the Revolution’s beneficiaries, including several hundred thousand religious fanatics in the Basij militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to defend the regime to the bitter end.
The protesters should avoid violence at all costs, because in current circumstances if it comes to a battle it will probably not end well.
The best option is that it ends like the Shah’s overthrow in 1979. The crowds come out in ever greater numbers, offering themselves up to be slain, until the ‘security’ forces themselves grow sickened by the scale of the killing and refuse to shoot the citizens any more.
This is unlikely, because the rebels this time are not motivated by the religious fervour that drove their grandparents four decades ago. Nor would the current regime just walk away like the Shah eventually did.
The second option is that the rebels arm themselves and try to bring the regime down by force. But they have little access to weapons, so that would probably just end up as a huge bloodbath but no regime change.
The third and worst option is that the young protesters do get enough weapons to take on the regime’s forces on a more or less equal basis. That would probably end up as a civil war.
It’s the ‘Syrian’ model. Non-violent young Syrian protesters demanded an end to the tyrannical Assad regime in early 2011, and were shot down in such numbers that their leaders were replaced by more violent people.
Many conscript soldiers defected to the anti-regime side too, and the confrontation morphed into a nationwide civil war that lasted an entire decade. About half a million Syrians were killed, most of the country is in ruins, and the tyrant is still there.
Multiply that by four, and you have a vision of what Iran could look like if the protesters really took up arms against the regime: the entire country devastated, several million dead, and tens of millions of people displaced.
To say this is to rain on the protesters’ parade, but it cannot be helped. The day may come, in five or ten years, when enough of the regime’s staunch supporters have aged out, and the economic misery caused by its isolation from the world is so extreme, that a peaceful transition to a different kind of Iran becomes possible. But that day has not yet arrived.