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The Iranian protesters have a secret weapon

The cult of martyrdom and death fostered by the ayatollahs has backfired, and may well destroy them.

Iranians demand freedom, Oct. 10, 2022. Source: Twitter.
Iranians demand freedom, Oct. 10, 2022. Source: Twitter.
David Wurmser. Courtesy.
David Wurmser

Last week, various senior Israeli intelligence sources suggested that, while they believe the Iranian uprising is serious, they do not think the regime will fall. This followed weeks of private signals from the United States that it believes the same.

Israel and the U.S. appear to have reached their conclusions for the same reasons: The uprising lacks a centralized opposition leadership and sufficient funding. A revolution, the intelligence community has concluded, needs both to succeed.

Is this analysis correct? Israel’s intelligence on Iran surpasses that of any other country, and the U.S. is no slouch in that department either, so one should be cautious about dismissing their conclusions. However, there is a strong chance that they are mistaken.

First, those with the best understanding of the current situation are the people on the ground in Iran. Even a cursory survey of communications over the last three months indicates that the opposition both in exile and in Iran believes that “this time it’s different.” They are certain that the regime is finished.

The opposition’s confidence is matched by its actions. Several times, the regime has ominously demanded that the protests stop immediately or else. The protests, however, usually escalated after these threats. The government then applied the “or else”: Live ammunition, executions in public, systematic torture and unspeakable brutality on a vast scale. But this butchery failed to suppress the uprising. Clearly, the government has the will to kill, but the population is undeterred. When a tyrannical regime has lost the power of fear, it cannot rule.

Regarding the issue of funds, a new situation is taking shape, not because the opposition is receiving money, but because the regime is losing it. There have been widespread strikes by everyone from oil workers to bazaar merchants, and the general unrest has paralyzed economic activity. There are strong signs that this is starting to inflict serious pain on the regime. For example, its funding of foreign terror groups has declined.

There is every reason to think that a tightening of sanctions on the regime, coupled with domestic labor unrest, could easily snowball if Western governments choose to pursue such a strategy. Indeed, one can only imagine what might happen if all of Iran’s frozen assets were handed over to the Iranian opposition.

It seems clear, then, that the momentum and intensity of the upheaval has not abated. Yet even the very intelligence agencies expressing pessimism appear to have no idea why the uprising continues. Is there an intangible factor at work? Something that has destroyed the regime’s ability to strike fear into its citizens?

I believe the answer is yes, and ironically, that something was created by the regime itself. The main cause of the regime’s willingness to kill is its obsession with martyrdom, which it has turned into nothing less than a cult of death. The regime has spent decades indoctrinating generations of children and adults in this ideology, and it is now coming home to roost. Iranians have been taught by the ayatollahs not to fear death, so they don’t, even if death comes from the ayatollahs themselves.

Moreover, this worship of martyrdom has created a generation of young people who believe that an idea is worth dying for. The ayatollahs want this idea to be their own totalitarian form of Islam. But this no longer has any appeal to Iranian youth. The idea of freedom—perhaps not fully formed, but very real—has replaced it. The phrase “give me liberty or give me death,” so familiar but so distant to Americans, is now very immediate for Iranians. This is what has given Iranian youth the strength to risk everything in the name of revolution.

It may be that this cult of martyrdom will lead to the revolution’s success, but this will have a dark side of its own. The ancient soul of Persian civilization has always been one of light and life, but this has been buried beneath a veil of darkness and death, embodied by the dour, cruel and arrogantly detached ayatollahs. Their god is a god of misery, where life is easily bartered for the relief of death and the hell that is the world is traded for the paradise of the afterlife.

This bleak desolation offers little for which to live. At the same time, it diminishes the value of life instilled over generations. Sadly, this will bedevil Iran after liberation as well. One can only hope that an effort to reawaken the ancient soul of Iran will be undertaken in order to overpower the cult of death. Such an effort will be the most important but difficult task once the regime falls.

David Wurmser, Ph.D. is a senior analyst and director of the Project on Global Antisemitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship at the Center for Security Policy, and a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum. He served as Middle East adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

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