«How can one help the Iranian people restore their normal life?”
This was the question that a Japanese friend put to me in 2019 in what at the time seemed to be a casual chat in a Persian restaurant in London. Three years later I have just learned that the question had been something more than a dinner-table note to prolong the conversation. The friend in question had been sounding out a few people about the tactics that then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should pursue during a visit to Tehran to persuade the ruling mullahs to lead Iran back into “normal life.”
Following my old habit of writing down an account of such meetings for possible use in the future, I jotted the main segments of my response the same evening.
The notes start like this: There is no way that you or anyone else could help the Iranian people return to normalcy as long as the present regime is in place in Tehran. A people that finds itself in the hands of a brutal authoritarian regime that claims a divine mandate and is ready to do whatever it takes to remain in power, no holds bar, is beyond help by any outsider with the best of intentions.
If you help the Islamic Republic improve its economy, the bulk of the proceeds will go to strengthening the apparatus of repression, with the people receiving mere crumbs to keep their mouths shut.
At the same time, regime propaganda will spread the tale that it was thanks to its “revolutionary ardor” that the evil foreigners had to offer a few concessions. The “arrogant powers” were retreating under the blows of the new rising power of Islam destined to conquer the whole world and convert the Japanese to duodecimain Shiism.
Worse still, regime propaganda would claim that what the “evil foreigner” was offering presented only a fraction of what he had stolen from the Islamic Republic and that greater struggle against the enemy would force him to offer even more concessions.
If you make a deal with the supposedly “reasonable” faction within the regime, its rivals will do whatever they can to sabotage the deal. Haven’t you noticed that each time that the faction you consider as reasonable comes close to normalization, other factions start seizing hostages, putting bombs in your cities, or raiding your embassies to derail the process?
Over the past four decades, more than two dozen countries have tried to sweeten the Tehran mullahs with all manner of carrots. Germany gave the Islamic Republic a most-favored-nation status. France offered exceptional trade guarantees. The US apologized for unknown and non-existent “wrongs” it was supposed to have done to Islam.
President George WH Bush held secret meetings with Tehran emissaries, asserting that “goodwill begets goodwill.” President Barack Obama even smuggled $1.7 billion in cash to “help the Iranian people” but the money went to the regime’s repressive machine. Each time, however, that cursed “goodwill” led to the seizing of new hostages and a more virulent campaign of vilification against “the evil foreign powers.”
Whatever helps a foreign power with the best intentions could offer will go to the regime, not to the Iranian people.
Remember how Prince Charles of Great Britain, Queen Rania of Jordan and US President George W Bush helped collect vast sums to help the earthquake-stricken people of Bam in southeast Iran? Well, not a single farthing reached those people while Khomeinist propaganda claimed that “the evil foreigner” was using humanitarian aid as a cover for espionage and the conversion of Iranians to “canceled (manuskh) religions such as Christianity.
Well, if offering help is useless what about doing harm as a means of changing the situation?
That, too, wouldn’t work.
Pinprick attacks are easily ducked and any damage they might do is directed away from the regime toward the people. After all, the 8-year war with Iraq didn’t shake the regime but claimed over a million lives, wrecked four Iranian provinces, and produced 3.5 million displaced persons. In April 1988, the US Navy sank the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s navy after an 18-hour sea battle in which the latter played sitting duck. But that didn’t prevent the regime from claiming it had won the greatest naval victory in Iran’s history and driven the Americans out of “sacred Islamic waters.”
Even the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger ‘plane was used by regime propaganda as a prop for inciting popular anger and xenophobic sentiments disguised as nationalism in favor of a regime opposed to anything resembling patriotism.
The Islamic Republic’s “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes no bones about the nature of his regime; “We shall never become normal,” he says, licking his lips in mock defiance. In one of his numerous authorized biographies he says that his favorite poem is a couplet by his fellow- Mash’hadi poet Bahar:
“The steadfastness and resistance of the nail-
“deserves to be a model for mankind.
“The more they hit the nail on the head,
“The firmer it becomes in its place!”
It would be useless to tell Khamenei that human beings are different from nails and that, even then, the masochistic nail is a mere object in a man’s hand that hits it on the head to fasten it in a place he has chosen.
So, if the carrots are eaten only to sharpen the teeth and the sticks are diverted to beat the ordinary folk and not regime “deciders”, what is to be done? One answer is to let them stew in their juice until they rot in their contradictions. This is what happened to the Soviet Union which was fed endless juicy carrots and hit by many prickly sticks but could not alter course until it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Truth to tell, however, that is a way of dodging the question that Abe might have posed. A better answer might have been “no one knows!” Only the French, being Cartesians, think that if there is a question there must also be at least one answer. And sometimes there may even be answers to non-existent questions.
Anyway, the late Abe went to Tehran to play peacemaker, he was insulted and told to return home empty-handed. It is interesting that President Joe Biden or whoever is his ventriloquist still thinks they can normalize the quintessentially abnormal.