A reluctance to lend a hand to the regime’s propagandists by openly backing those shouting “death to the dictator” is one reason European governments have been reluctant to voice an opinion about what is happening in Iran. Another is that in Europe, many who hold influential positions – among them the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Italian Federica Mogherini – dislike the US and, with even greater venom, Israel, and treat the Iranian dictatorship as yet another victim of evil imperialistic machinations. Given the dangers posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions, its willingness to lavish billions of dollars on terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah and its often stated desire to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth, as well as its role in the 1994 AMIA bombing, it might be thought that all Western countries, among them Argentina, would be doing their utmost to take advantage of the current unrest. However, apart from a couple of characteristic, and much criticised, tweets from Donald Trump, hardly anyone has expressed the hope that Iran’s Islamic Revolution could be brought down from within. Helping the Iranian regime and others like it is the widespread pessimism regarding the prospects facing underdeveloped countries.
Until fairly recently, most middle-of-the-road Westerners assumed that, as time went by, countries still ruled by tyrants could be made to evolve into democracies, as indeed happened throughout Eastern and Central Europe and in much of Latin America after the Soviet Union went into meltdown. So when the “Arab spring” broke out just over seven years ago, many hoped events in the Muslim world would follow a similar course. They did not. Almost overnight it became clear that, with the possible exception of Tunisia, countries in which versions of Islam had shaped the culture for over a thousand years were not about to embrace the political and economic rules that, after centuries of trial and error, had in the West and then Japan shown themselves to be far superior to all the alternatives, including those adopted because it was assumed that a totalitarian approach would speed up development.
In the murderous free-for-all that followed the brief “Arab spring,” religious fanatics, clan leaders and military bosses took advantage of the confusion to fight against one another as, on and off, they had been doing since before anyone could remember. The more presentable among them managed to convince the Europeans and North Americans that they wanted their countries to become democratic and got rewarded with large sums of money. Some may have really meant it, but so far all attempts by outsiders to use the immense resources at their disposal to put together a genuinely democratic alliance capable of winning power and then keeping it have failed. As things stand, nobody even pretends to know what will finally emerge from the gruesome turmoil that has devastated Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, and already spilled over into Europe where it is causing many intractable problems.
Few European politicians seem to think it would be in their interest to encourage the rioters who have taken to the streets of Iranian cities to demand not just economic reform and less graft but also to express their evident loathing of their country’s theocratic rulers. No doubt many quietly agree with Trump that the regime is “brutal and corrupt” and therefore deserves to be overthrown, but the last thing they want is for Iran to get torn apart by a civil war similar to the one that has brought so much suffering to Syria. As a considerable proportion of Iran’s population belongs to ethnic and linguistic minorities – accompanying the Persians, who despite a plummeting birth rate remain a majority, are large numbers of Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis and Arabs – a major rebellion against the status quo could become just as bloody as did the one in Syria and send more millions of refugees fleeing towards the Mediterranean, a disaster that would present the Europeans with an even greater challenge than the ones they are already facing.
(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).