Over the past month, the protests in Iran have remained incredibly active despite the increasingly despotic treatment of protestors by the Iranian government. Mohsen Shekari, a young 23 year old man, was recently sentenced to death for his roles in the protests, being charged with moharebeh, meaning “waging war against God.” In the mind of the Iranian government, this was warranted after Shekari allegedly injured a Basij agent, the Basij being an arms of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and one which has been described as a terrorist organization by the United States. Even so, we have also seen some very superficial promises at reform by the central Iranian government. In the West, there have been stirrings of acknowledging possible regime change, and Western media watches the situation with eager eyes. As the successes of the protests seem to ebb and flow, a question which remains is what role might the West play in these affairs? If the success of the current political movement is the priority of an observer, Western involvement is likely an important aspect, even despite the fact that Western involvement will likely have primarily ulterior, strategic rather than moral motives.
To begin, let us table defining the word “role” as listed above and simply speak of the intersection between strategic interests of the West, moral and social interests of the people, and the mutual effect which both parties seek to obtain. While the role of great powers and their blocs in the internal affairs of others remains contentious, it is undeniable that there are overlapping interests of both the people of Iran and of Western states. In the best case scenario, a liberalized Iran is an Iran more amenable to the West, one less prone to being used as a proxy by the Russian and Chinese governments. As for the people, a liberalized Iran means for the people an Iran which is, at least in theory, less authoritarian, more secular, and a state wherein the voices of minority groups, mostly religious and ethnic, are more able to be heard than under the current theocratic system. Thus, both parties ultimately would opine for a reformed Iran in very similar ways, though this analysis is admittedly not quite professional due to its rather shallow depth and is very much up for debate on a more serious level. The point, however, is not to address every nuance of the situation, but rather to draw a general picture of what might be desired by the two chief opposition parties.
With this in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that whatever “role” the West plays in Iran will inevitably be one from which national interests are prioritized before the goals of the movement. Under normal circumstances, this may be enough to admonish the West for planning their own involvement for selfish rationale as some might suspect that the West’s goals would ultimately lead to the degradation of the movement which it claimed to support and ultimately the destabilization of Iran, but such is not the case today. The West is more than happy to see the current movement succeed chiefly because it would be a propaganda victory, ostensibly a victory for human rights, and would weaken the strength of Iran’s theocracy in favor of a more liberal government. But it should be clear that weakening Iran as a whole is not really quite the point for the West, liberalizing Iran is. A stable, liberalized Iran is far more useful to the West than a weak, liberalized Iran, which is itself more useful to the West than a strong theocratic Iran. We know from the case of Iraq the danger of removing a regional hegemon within an area of conflict, and we know that it would only ultimately harm Western interests. Hence, no capable Western statesman is aiming for the destruction or battering of Iran as a state, it simply would not serve the West’s purposes. We already know the social goals of the protesters of Iran, and they would benefit in obvious ways from a strong liberalized government, much in the same way we have seen moderate social successes in Iraq owing to democratization. Although the rationale for involvement in Iranian affairs for the West and for the people of Iran do not overlap, the ultimate goals are quite similar. Both want liberalization and secularization chiefly among a slew of things.
As for what the West’s role should be, I believe anything from continued political awareness to diplomatic pressure are all within the realm of rationality. Those who propose sanctions or other economic measures have the right intentions, but fail to understand that this might disproportionately affect the working class who make up the bulk of the protesters rather than the government itself. We can support those who protest with our government’s statements, through the funding of protesting groups and groups specializing in human rights abuses, etc. Our roles will ultimately be largely financial, media-related, and about projecting Iranian voices outwards rather than placing Western spokespeople in front of them or putting demands into the mouths of those who protest. We aim to amplify the protests rather than to take the demands of Iranians and enforce them ourselves. And, yes, there are ulterior motives to the West’s support of Iranian protesters, but I would like to posit to the reader a question: would you rather both the Western powers and the Iranian protesters succeed in their goals or would you rather the protests and their advocates fade as a result of some principled stand against perceived Western imperialism?
There is no doubt that Western support for Iran reeks of the filth of imperialist motives, and, yet, the support is more useful than it is detrimental all the same. If the West fails to adequately support the protests in Iran, there is no telling how much longer we will simply be allowing ourselves to be witnesses to continued oppression. There is a moral obligation which we have to the people of Iran who call for reform, one which is further bolstered by Western security interests.
We have global power. We have global influence. Let us properly utilize it.