Opinion: Iran suppresses pro-democracy activists after Arab Revolt

Frida Ghitis

When Arab leaders looked at the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, they saw the flames of revolution lapping at their own heels. To protect themselves, they rushed to make preemptive concessions, handing out cash, rolling back subsidy cuts and promising new elections. Iranian leaders, on the other hand, chose to respond in precisely the opposite way. Instead of granting the people what they might demand, the government chose to protect itself by killing even more of its opponents, according to figures from human-rights organizations.

Iran’s reaction to the Arab Revolt of 2011 puts the regime’s fears, along with its objectives, in sharp relief.

On the surface, the government has expressed strong support for the protesters in Egypt. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the uprising an “Islamic awakening.” That is clearly what Tehran would like to see emerge from the tumult in Arab streets. After all, the secular Arab regimes under pressure from their people have generally opposed Iran’s Islamist revolutionary ideology and its military expansion. The ferment of revolution could open the door to the kind of change that brought religious authorities to power in Tehran three decades ago.

In spite of its stated support for the protesters; however, Iranian authorities quickly suppressed efforts by pro-democracy activists in their own country to stage demonstration in support of the anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Egypt. Tehran blocked opposition websites and placed an opposition leader under house arrest. It also accelerated the pace of executions.

The whole world was watching Egypt, so Iran took advantage of the moment. Among those killed by the regime in recent days was Zahra Bahrami, a 45-year-old Dutch-Iranian woman arrested during anti-government protests in 2009. The government accused her of drug smuggling and secretly hanged her on Jan. 29. Instead of returning her body to relatives, authorities took away her remains and buried her without allowing the family to attend. The Dutch, livid, labeled the Iranian regime “barbaric” and recalled their ambassador from Tehran.

The Islamic Republic wants to frighten its own people to keep Iranians from joining in the Middle East’s wave of popular uprisings against anti-democratic regimes. At the same time, the regime wants to see the turmoil in Arab capitals become a prelude to the expansion of Tehran’s version of revolution.

Iran does not report how many people it executes, but unofficial tallies by news organizations and human rights activists shows the Islamic Republic executed at least 66 people in January alone. Estimates point to some 250 executions in 2010. Iran now leads the world in the number of executions per capita.

In the last few weeks the government has intensified repressive actions aiming to crush any attempt to reignite the massive prodemocracy protests that erupted after the recent stolen election.

Iranian authorities have tried to brand the pro-democracy movements shaking Arab dictatorships, claiming they represent a continuation of the revolution that brought Islamists to power in Iran 32 years ago.

But the regime’s increased repression occurring simultaneously with the demonstrations in Tahrir Square shows that Iranian leaders know the revolt, at least until now, is more a protest against dictatorship than a move away from secularism. The Arab revolution may or may not produce secular democracies, but the protestors are fighting against government abuse.

The demonstrators have more in common with Iranian protestors who were brutally repressed by the regime in 2009 than they do with the ideologues that created the Islamic Republic and lead it today.

From the moment the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979 they vowed to spread their revolution across the Muslim world. Popular uprisings against secular Arab governments, which have long despised the Iranian regime, give Tehran hope that the ground will be fertile for more Islamic revolution.

So far; however, the young pro-democracy activists in the Arab world find more inspiration in the Iranian protests of 2009 than in the revolution of 1979. And the wave of executions, revealing a regime afraid of its own people, only provides more notice that the Arab revolt needs to protect itself from extremists who might hijack it.

Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Contact her at [email protected].