The Iranian government is in a race against time.
The riots in the streets of the Islamic Republic are spreading everywhere, most importantly to the Shi’ite heartland, which includes Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest and holiest city.
Mashhad is critical for the regime. Centered around a huge shrine complex that houses the grave of Imam Ali Reza, the eighth-generation leader of the major branch of Shi’ism directly descended from the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Approximately 25 million (Shi’ite) pilgrims visit Mashhad each year.
Though far from Tehran (460 miles to the east, close to the Afghani border and surrounded by a huge desert), it is an essential part of Shi’ism’s heritage—and many of the country’s important rulers of the revolution have roots there or married into families of the city’s esteemed Shi’ite religious figures.
That protesters across the country, especially in Mashhad, are calling for the death of the regime, while burning pictures of its members—with some chanting slogans lauding the pre-Islamic Revolution monarchy and the “last Shah’s son” who lives outside of Washington, D.C.—is particularly significant.
Petrified of being toppled, the regime is pulling out all the stops to stay in power. This is why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed his brutal henchman, Ebrahim (“the butcher”) Raisi, as president.
It’s also why Iran is racing to develop a nuclear weapon, and why the talks surrounding a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from Iran’s vantage point, must fail. Any agreement reached, after all, would allow the outside world access to at least part of Iran’s nuclear program.
This is something that the regime wants to prevent at all costs because it needs to show its people—the only audience that matters in the end—who’s the boss. The tyrants in Tehran apparently believe that if they can force America to submit to their will, they’ll be able to stave off their inevitable ouster by the people.
Their concern is justified, since even Raisi, the equivalent of the Third Reich’s Adolf Eichmann or Josef Mengele, seems unable to quell the unrest.
Iran’s leaders are well aware of what will happen to them if and when they are overthrown: In classical Iranian tradition, they will be shown no mercy by the people, who will drag them through the streets, hurling stones at their mutilated bodies. They know how painful and shameful this would be, as they have done exactly the same thing to their own opponents.
Rather than taking advantage of this opportunity to help the Iranian people extricate themselves from the regime, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is playing into the hands of the mullahs.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced publicly last week that negotiations with Iran cannot go on forever, he was exhibiting a total lack of understanding of—or willful blindness to—the real purpose of Tehran’s participation in the talks in Vienna.
A key kind of assistance that we could offer the people is technical help with their Internet communications, which are often blocked by the regime. This is something that we and others might be able to help them with technically. The Iranian masses would be encouraged and feel a shot in the arm if they knew how much support they have outside their country.
One thing is clear, even without such support, however: Their behavior indicates that they no longer fear their leaders. Even those who do, however, have begun to consider their lives so hopeless that they have nothing to lose. What they need is courage, which they seem to be gaining with each passing day.
Because Iran has never been a democracy, its rulers’ most important task has been to ensure that once they took power, they remained in power. Everything else, such as domestic and foreign policy, has been secondary to that goal.
This is how we should understand Raisi’s appointment. As a “judge” and political figure, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians, some of whose “crimes” were as insignificant as telling a joke about a regime figure. Khamenei and his cohorts know that Raisi won’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to crush the rioters.
Still, Iranian history is paved with leaders like Raisi who have overplayed their hands and brought about exactly the opposite of what they had intended—the fall of the regime.
The United States doesn’t appear to grasp any of the above. Rather than realize how fragile the regime is, the administration in Washington has been bolstering it. America’s “indirect” negotiators in Vienna, whatever their intentions, don’t include people who have dedicated themselves to understanding the inner machinations of the Iranian mentality.
They don’t see, for example, the way in which Khamenei is playing them like a fiddle. Pretending to be the “good cop,” he has outwardly taken a more “conciliatory” view of the riots, saying that the government must worry about the needs of the people more than it has been doing. As a result, certain Biden advisers have begun to say that Khamenei must be strengthened against “bad cop” Raisi.
They don’t realize that Khamenei and Raisi work as a team, and that the last thing America should do right now is to provide any additional means for them to continue their repressive grip on a populace desperate to be free of it.
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as an Advisor on Islamic Culture for 28 years in the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
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