Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Iran: The Chained Volcano

“The white giant in chains!” This is how Bahar, one of Iran’s greatest contemporary poets, describes Mount Damvand, the towering volcano that looms over the horizon in the Tehran region.

At the end of his qasida (ode) Bahar pleads with the volcano to end its silence with an explosion of fire and lava to “cleanse the world of tyranny and corruption”.

For the past two weeks the nationwide uprising across Iran has reminded many Iranians of Bahar’s poem with the question: Has the volcano begun its final eruption?

Today’s Damavand is made of a new generation of Iranians who don’t give tuppence about the Islamic Republic’s arcane narrative, and prefer life in the modern world, warts and all, to the North Korean-style society that “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is trying to impose on Iran.

The uprising was triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman on a family visit to Tehran.

Within 24 hours of her death, allegedly as a result of beatings by security agents, Mahsa Amini’s name was known to almost all Iranians and, within 48 hours, it had become a symbol of resistance to tyranny across the world.

Because of censorship and pressure exerted on journalists, including the few remaining foreign correspondents, in Iran it is hard to gauge the extent of what looks like a nationwide uprising whose core message is: We can’t take it anymore!

By the time of writing this column we had received the names of 84 people, including nine women and six children, killed by security while semi-official figures put the number of arrests at over 1800.

The uprising spread to over 300 towns and cities some of which witnessed protests for the first time in recent history.

But is this the big bang that Bahar begged Damvand to produce?

For the past 43 years, that is to say since mullahs seized power in Tehran, the Iranian volcano has produced numerous eruptions.

On March 8, 1979, that is to say 25 days after Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini emerged as the new ruler, over half a million women gathered in Tehran to protest against the imposed “hijab” and other restrictions announced by the mullahs.

Despite brutal repression and mass executions, throughout 1979 to 1988, Iran witnessed other eruptions as various layers of the coalition formed under Khomeini started to peel away. In those years Iran also witnessed massacres by the new regime’s forces in several regions, notably in Khuzestan, Kurdistan and Turkman Sahra.

Since then the Iranian volcano has witnessed over 20 medium or big eruptions, all of them brutally suppressed.
Early in its existence the Khomeinist regime established self-preservation as its highest goal. Khomeini called it “the obligation of obligations” (oujab al-wajebat in Arabic), asserting that to protect the regime even Islam could be set aside.

To protect the regime, the mullahs did two things.

First, they devoted a large chunk of the gross domestic product (gdp) to military-security forces. Best estimates indicate that “protecting the regime” claims 14 percent of the gdp, four times more than allocations for education or health. Regime protection forces, excluding the national army, number over 600,000 men. Islamic security is organized in nine different units, at least four of them trained and equipped for crushing street protests.

All security units, including Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), benefit from numerous advantages notably salaries that are 30 percent higher than comparable ones in the national army.

They also own or manage over 8,000 businesses and control 25 quays in nine ports from which they can import or export whatever they like without facing customs regulations.
Security forces also get many of the plum jobs.

In fact, over the past five years, as far as filling big jobs is concerned, they have edged ahead of the mullahs. They are also given priority access to university places, housing, health care, consumer goods, foreign travel and scholarships for children studying in Europe or the United States.

Next, the regime created a series of groups dependent on its largesse under such names as “family of martyrs”, “the dispossessed”, “followers of the Imam’s line”, reciters of holy texts (maddahoun in Arabic), and “volunteers for martyrdom”.

To that must be added a network of mullahs and students of theology who receive stipends and/or occasional “gifts” (known as heavy envelopes) from the “Supreme Guide”.

Yet another security ring consists of tens of thousands of expatriate Iranians in Europe and North America who go back and forth, mixing business with pleasure while acting as the regime’s apologists abroad. They are called “double-lifers” (zu-hayatain in Arabic).
How large the regime’s base is remains a matter for speculation.

In the latest presidential election, the regime’s favorite candidate, Ayatollah Dr. Ibrahim Raisi won a quarter of the votes of eligible voters. Former President Hassan Rouhani, a mullah, estimated that around 30 percent of Iranians were happy with the regime and provided its support base.

Whatever the size of the regime’s support base, one thing is sure: it is shrinking.

During the current uprising an unexpected number of figures associated with the regime and benefiting from its perks, including an amazing number of celebrities and former Islamist officials, have publicly sided with protesters. Poets who wrote odes in praise of Khomeini or Khamenei and novelists who tried to justify every misdeed of the mullahs have publicly “repented”.

The latest uprising is different from previous ones in a number of ways.

It is taking place on a larger scale and bringing together people from all walks of life. It is not limited to corporatist issues such as better wages and working conditions. Nor is it focused on particular grievances such as loss of savings, oppression of non-Islamic religious communities or cultural restrictions. This time, the almost unanimous call is for regime change.

This is why the ruling establishment seems to be unable to decide how to cope with the uprising. Some within the regime have called for “merciless repression” while others advise dialogue and reform of certain laws.

Until this writing, Khamenei who shed tears for the death of George Floyd in the United States was silent on the eruption that threatened his regime.

Even if the latest eruption isn’t the big bang, one thing is certain: The Damavand of Iranian anger is hissing and untamed.