World leaders can claim to have been taken by surprise by the protests which have erupted in Iran over the past few days.
After all, many European politicians and American analysts confidently declared, as recently as October, that American sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its foreign operations apparatus had united the Iranian people behind the nation’s theocratic government and its security state.
If they truly believed these words – and took the proclamation of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, that Iranians were ‘all IRGC’ to heart – what has come since must have been a bit of a shock.
These observers must have been amazed to see Iranians taking to the streets to protest against mass unemployment and corruption. They must have been astounded to see Iranians voicing opposition to the country’s extensive, and expensive, campaign to rescue Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from deposition.
After this shock is registered and mastered, something else must happen.
National leaders must respond to these protests, which have broken out across Iran, including the holy city of Qom; and they must do so properly.
As some have already seen fit to say, the eyes of the world are watching.
This is true, despite international observers looking more at secondary events than their primary causes. In the West, more has been made, arguably, of global responses to the protests in Iran than of the protests themselves.
President Trump has been criticised not for an off-the-cuff tweet (as is usual), but rather for a considered statement.
His enthusiastic endorsement of Iranian protesters has been intensely scrutinised. The president said that the ‘Iranian [government] should respect their people’s rights, including [the] right to express themselves’. He has since tweeted on Iran’s shutting down of the internet to prevent protesters from organising, commenting ‘Not good!’ He isn’t wrong.
Trump’s comments have been declared hypocritical, in light of his administration’s travel ban, which prevents Iranian citizens from entering the United States. His comments have been called dishonest, and worse.
So, too, has a speech by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the same subject. That speech is notable for both its opportunism and its apparent optimism.
‘When this regime finally falls – and one day it will – Iranians and Israelis will be great friends once again. I wish the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom’, Netanyahu said.
Forget, for a moment, the political gamesmanship in each case.
These two national leaders have at least commented. And they have, in the latter’s case, included some effective rhetoric in their comments. Compare that to the abject fence-sitting from European leaders.
The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has said something; but his statement was so general and so banal that it was barely better than saying nothing.
Her majesty’s government, Johnson said, ‘regret[s] the loss of life that has occurred in the protests in Iran’. It ‘believe[s] that there should be meaningful debate about the legitimate and important issues the protesters are raising’. This is hardly stirring stuff from the representative of perfidious Albion. There was little point in such platitudes even being written down.
The European Union’s foreign affairs representatives have stayed largely silent, or resorted to equivocation. Germany’s foreign office called for ‘all sides to refrain from taking any violent action’. ‘All sides’ is a telling formulation.
Catherine Roy, the spokesperson for Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, implied that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s government would respect the rights of Iran’s citizens to demonstrate peacefully – which is not only bland and uninspiring; it’s also deeply dishonest when at least 21 protesters already lie dead.
And it is likely to seem even more absurd in the near future; a serious wave of repression is likely, whether the protests morph into something bigger and more insurgent or not. Reportedly, protesters could face the charge of ‘crimes against God’, which carries the death penalty.
Roy also noted that the EU would continue to ‘monitor the situation’. Perhaps it had not been monitoring closely enough hitherto.
Europe’s response to the protests and the subsequent backlash has been weak and disingenuous. The continent’s leaders appear to be limply hedging their bets, or – worse – tacitly taking the side of the regime over the lives of those protesting.
Are European policymakers too preoccupied with salvaging the beleaguered nuclear deal to mind if a few Iranians are killed or imprisoned by their government in the interim?
It is too soon to predict how these protests will end. But salient facts are hardly difficult to amass. Across the country, Iranian people have protested. They have an internationally-recognised right to do so. But these protesters have been met with force. Some of them have been killed, some of them injured, and some imprisoned.
Such a situation calls for more than an assurance that foreign governments are still reading their briefing papers.
When people are being murdered by a defensive government, the words and actions of other states matter – far more than their good intentions; their rhetoric is more important than one might think.
Trump’s words, though seized upon by critics, were better than nothing. In an ideal world, such a man would rectify his Iran-related policy missteps before hazarding such comments.
Ideally, he’d never have formulated and implemented self-defeating and foolish policies in the first place. But we must deal with the world we have.
When people take to the streets demanding an end to mass unemployment and corruption, and are met with bullets, the world needs to be prepared to do more than ‘monitor the situation’.
That means honestly assessing events – noting who has the guns, who is killing people on the streets. And that reality ought to compel international governments to say something; and that means producing something which is worth saying, something which can sum up protesters’ hopes for a better future.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.