A bumpy road ahead for both Canada and Iranians

As Canada seeks justice on behalf of Flight 752 victims, Iranians also face a tough road going forward against an unpredictable and only somewhat weakened regime, writes Saeed Rahnema.

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January 17, 2020
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Iranian people gather in Tehran for the victims of Flight 752 on January 11, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via REUTERS
Saeed Rahnema

Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

In confrontations between civil society and a totalitarian state, there are transient historical moments in which despite all its relative weaknesses, civil society poses serious challenges to its powerful adversary, the almighty state.

The Islamic regime in Iran has faced several such challenges in the past 40 years, with ever-shorter intervals between each confrontation. The volatile situation in the country now, resulting from internal and external problems, has created unintended consequences and new, unexpected challenges for all involved.

The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani struck the Islamic regime with a humiliating blow while at the same time providing it some much needed breathing space, as I discussed recently on this site. In a similar manner, the eventual admission by Iran of shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, despite the huge losses and tragic deaths of so many people, provided an opening for large groups of Iranians to pour into the streets to protest, once again, against the regime.

Up until then, everyone’s anticipation, including my own, was that after the well-orchestrated funeral processions for Soleimani and the tense, intimidating atmosphere, the upheavals of two months earlier would take some time to resurface. But the coordinated lies at all levels of Iran’s state hierarchy following the fiasco of the plane crash instigated incredible sadness and widespread outcries in the streets, in the universities and on Farsi social media channels. Public anger was hugely amplified when rumours spread that the authorities had intentionally not closed the commercial air space in order to use commercial traffic as a sort of human shield; the story was going around on social media and the streets that the regime’s intention had been to prevent possible US responses, or should any plane in that air space be hit by an American missile — reminiscent of the 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655 — it would serve as a propaganda tool. Although the authorities would not confirm the rumours, for the protesters this was another reminder of the illegitimate regime’s total disregard for the lives of its own citizens.

The loss of those on Flight 752 —176 innocent lives, including 82 Iranians and 57 Canadians, most of whom were Iranian-Canadian, including highly educated professionals and scholars — renewed people’s anger, which includes resentment over the disastrous current brain drain from Iran (with Canada being a major beneficiary), the result of the regime’s incompetence and ineptitude. For decades, Iranian professionals have been leaving the country en masse, with a former minister estimating that the country loses about 150,000 of highly trained individuals each year. Many of those who do not leave and who are not willing to cooperate with the regime are left unemployed, and many students are killed or jailed, as witnessed in the most recent protests in November last year.

Many protestors, while mourning the deaths of the passengers of the plane crash, prompted everyone not to forget the several hundreds who were brutally killed and thousands who were detained in the November demonstrations, as well as the 50 or more killed in the orchestrated funeral procession of Soleimani in Kerman, some of whom were school children.

All this has further discredited the regime. The protestors are rightly targeting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, chanting more radical slogans than ever: “Our scoundrel leader, our shame,” or “the enemy is right here.” Calls for Khamenei’s resignation are not limited to the young demonstrators, but are also being made by known activists as well. Many prominent Iranian filmmakers and artists have announced that they will boycott the upcoming Fajr festival, an important showcase for the regime.

“It is hard to anticipate the outcome of the power struggle within the Islamic regime.”

One main question now — for those in Iran, as Canada and Canadians have many questions of their own — is where will the sporadic revolts of Iranian people lead? Surely the street protests will continue, be pushed back and re-emerge with any chance opposing forces can find. As will the regime’s brutal repressive tactics. But as in similar cases, a movement without organization dissipates, as the opposition inside Iran is being suppressed and the opposition in exile is for now too divided and weak. That is to say, while the Iranian regime is dying, it is a very slow death.

It is also hard to anticipate the outcome of the power struggle within the Islamic regime. The supreme leader is turning the complex clerical-military-business oligarchy that has been ruling Iran into an outright highly centralized dictatorial rule. Some within the regime are realizing that his rigidity may put the whole system and the interests of the new capitalist class in danger.

Had it not been for international pressure, including the firm stance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has received much praise and admiration from online commentators in Iran, the Islamic regime would likely not have admitted its crime. Canada should continue pressuring the regime to be transparent and disclose what exactly happened and who the culprits within the hierarchy were, not just the junior operators of the missile battery. (As of this week, Iran has stated that it arrested “some individuals” over the matter, but it is unclear how many or their involvement.) The regime should also be pushed for justice for the victims and compensation for their families, as Canada and the international response group announced Thursday it would do.

Some in Canada and Iran are now trying to push for the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran. If this happens, it should be conditional on the way the Iranian embassy and its representatives are allowed to operate in Canada. When Iran’s embassy was previously active in Canada, it was criticized for establishing front organizations, and accused of spying on Iranian-Canadians and funding suspicious activities by their numerous agents who have emigrated to Canada.

The confrontations between the Islamic regime in Iran and the United States are not going to go away, and it is hard to anticipate what forms they will take. For now, neither side wants a war — Iran is no match for the US and its allies, and the US realizes that the regime in Iran is not like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

At the same time, the Islamic regime cannot resolve its catch-22 — the need to keep militant Shia groups outside Iran to protect itself, and the dangers in holding on to them — and will not let go of these groups. Nor will it abandon its nuclear program. In fact, Iran has now declared that in reaction to the US unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (the JCPOA) and imposing sanctions, it will no more comply with the agreement, leading to the decision by the Europeans to trigger the dispute settlement mechanism. Possible additional European and UN sanctions could push the Islamic regime, which is economically bankrupt and faced with all sorts of crises and political chaos, to look for desperate measures with dire consequences for the region.

The US, as an imperial power, has much at stake in the Middle East — contrary to Donald Trump’s bravado — and will maintain its presence there. That is why Trump is trying to drag NATO into conflicts there. So while Iranians put up a fight at home, we must also hope that Canada puts up a fight in order to avoid being dragged even further into this conflict, as it was in Afghanistan.