5 questions about Iran, answered by academic in exile Ammar Maleki
Ammar Maleki, assistant professor of political science at Tilburg Law School, is an Iranian academic and activist living in exile. As the situation in his home country continues to unfold, we asked him five questions about the Iran crisis.
Ever since the American killing of general Soleimani, questions have swirled around Iran’s escalating internal and external tensions. What will Iran do next? Why are Iranians protesting? Will the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran fall? Are we on the brink of World War Three?
Tilburg University scholar Ammar Maleki has been closely following the latest developments in his country. He has been living in self-imposed exile for more than ten years now, knowing that he would face imprisonment for his criticism and pro-democracy activism if he sets foot in Iran.
Despite being half a world away, he continues to be a voice for change in Iran. We asked him five questions about recent events, and what they might mean for the future.
You lived under the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That regime is said to be close to crumbling now that Iran is swept by a wave of fierce protests over the government’s involvement in the downing of a passenger plane. Is Khamenei’s regime really about to fall?
“The Islamic regime in Iran—I intentionally say ‘in’ Iran and not ‘of’ Iran, as this is not the regime that Iranians want—is currently in the weakest position it has ever been over the past 40 years. The majority of Iranians want a regime change. However, the regime and its leader have the power and desire to use suppression, especially when they have the reassurance that international actors—particularly the EU—will not react in more serious ways than verbal condemnation.
After the regime’s significant role in helping Asad turn Syria into what it is today, the Islamic Republic is ready to bring about the ‘Syriazation’ of Iran. The main factor that prevents the regime from doing so, is the fear of the international response. That will be crucial in determining the Islamic Republic’s destiny: will the West wait and watch the suppression and mass killing of the peaceful protesters, which is what happened in November in Iran and also during the first six months of the Syrian revolution, or will the international community react and prevent such mass killings? Khamenei’s regime is crumbling, but whether it will surrender, transform or collapse is yet unknown.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has admitted to shooting down the Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people on board, because it was mistaken for an American missile. The crash happened just a few hours after Iran launched an attack against US troops in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s death. Can you explain who Soleimani was in Iran? Was he a household name? How did Iranians see him?
“Soleimani was on the terrorist list of the EU and the USA. Most Iranians were familiar with him due to his role in suppressing Iranians’ social movements over the past twenty years. On the other hand, there was vast propaganda around his name as the defeater of ISIS—the exaggerated narrative that was bought by some international analysts as well.
He was indeed popular among supporters of the regime, which we know is about 20 percent of the population based on a survey we conducted—the only anonymous systematic survey that has been carried out to date—at the independent research institute GAMAAN. About one million people attended the government-organized funeral rallies for Soleimani in the capital, which is roughly 10 percent of Tehran’s population. However, we observed that three days later, after the denial and the subsequent admission of the downing of the Ukrainian airplane by the IRGC, angry protesters took to the streets in many cities, tearing down posters depicting Soleimani and chanting ‘IRGC, you are our ISIS’.”
How were those two dramatic recent events – the Soleimani assassination and the plane downing – received in Iran? And what were your personal thoughts when you learned about them?
“Regarding the killing of Soleimani, there are different opinions among Iranians. The regime’s supporters and some extreme nationalists condemn Soleimani’s killing and attended his funeral. The propaganda about his role in defeating ISIS convinced some people that he was a national hero. On the other hand, many Iranians compare Soleimani’s role in Iran to Reinhard Heydrich’s role as the military general in Nazi Germany. A clip showing Heydrich’s funeral was widely shared by Iranians on social media during Soleimani’s funeral. Iranian dissidents were happy to see Soleimani removed from power, considering his role in the suppression and killing of thousands of Iranians as well as hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
We know that Iranian society is divided, but not polarized as some journalists and Iranian regime apologists claim. The division between regime supporters and regime-change supporters is 2 to 8, respectively. The problem is that the former group can freely express their opinion and rally in the streets, while people belonging to the latter group can be killed for peacefully protesting. That is what we saw in the November protests, when 1500 people were killed. Unfortunately, the partisan conflict in the United States and anti-Trump sentiments have made some American journalists susceptible to the propaganda of regime apologists. These journalists mistakenly think that the enemy (the Islamic Republic) of their enemy (Trump) is their friend. For example, the New York Times reported that Iran was ‘united in anger’ over the loss of Soleimani, which is untrue and goes against the evidence.
As for my personal thoughts, I believe that Soleimani should have been arrested and tried by the International Criminal Court. He was accused of war crimes in Syria and other countries, where his Qods Force carried out destabilizing military operations.
The shooting down of the airplane was met with national grief in Iran. And, personally, I am certain that the Islamic regime would have never admitted responsibility for this calamity without the international involvement and pressure that followed the crash.”
Khamenei has vowed ‘severe revenge’ for the US drone strike that killed Soleimani. After the strike, it didn’t take long for ‘World War Three’ to start trending on Twitter. Do you think fears of a looming world war are justified?
“These past two weeks have been a very stressful time. Many Iranians and people around the world were worried about what would happen. However, many analysts who are familiar with the regime’s social psychology have foreseen that the threat of ‘hard revenge’ by the Islamic Republic would be hollow. The Islamic Republic has a famous motto, inherited from its founding leader Ayatollah Khomeini, which says that the survival of the Islamic regime is more important than anything else. The regime knew that any act of retaliation leading to the killing of an American would immediately result in an attack by the US, which could endanger the existence of the Islamic Republic.
That is why, when the leaders of the Islamic Republic decided to attack an American base in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s death, they informed American authorities in advance—to avoid any casualties. It seems that the ghost of war is hovering over the Middle East, but both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States want to avoid war.”
As tensions continue to rise, both inside and outside Iran, the consequences of recent events are still revealing themselves. What would be the best outcome for Iranians and for the rest of the world?
“The Islamic Republic is a corrupted, suppressive and aggressive regime, both inside and outside Iran’s borders. Iranians—as well as Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians—are tired of the destructive policies of the regime. At the same time, there is the Iran-US conflict, the consequences that sanctions impose on Iran’s economy, and the failure of the nuclear deal. Those developments have recently led to rising tensions between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world, including the European Union.
For people inside and outside Iran, the best scenario is a peaceful transition from a suppressive theocracy to an accountable democracy. However, we know that such a transition is very unlikely as long as Khamenei is in power. Tensions will continue to rise as long as the Islamic Republic refuses to negotiate with the US and to change its demeanor on the national and international stage.
Iranians are tired of the Islamic Republic’s unaccountable ‘tyranny of the minority’, which has brought the country into lasting conflict with the world. After futile efforts to reform the regime, Iranians now seek fundamental change. In their endeavor to achieve such change, they need international support and solidarity. An accountable, democratic Iran is the only sustainable win-win scenario for Iranians and the rest of the world.”