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Op-ed'The Iranian people want regime change'

Visiting Israel, Iranian anti-regime activists see another 2009 moment, seek support

With Iranians’ anger at the ayatollahs again erupting into protests, the international community has a chance to atone for its failure 13 years ago – and every interest in doing so

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

  • In this June 15, 2009 file photo, hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims there was voting fraud in Friday's election, turn out to protest the result of the election at a mass rally in Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
    In this June 15, 2009 file photo, hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims there was voting fraud in Friday's election, turn out to protest the result of the election at a mass rally in Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
  • Shoshana group delegates (from left) Nazanin Ansari, Amir Hamidi, Zohreh Mizrahi and Mike Manesh, at the Times of Israel's offices, May 30, 2022 (DH / Times of Israel)
    Shoshana group delegates (from left) Nazanin Ansari, Amir Hamidi, Zohreh Mizrahi and Mike Manesh, at the Times of Israel's offices, May 30, 2022 (DH / Times of Israel)
  • Iranians gather at the site where a ten-storey building collapsed as rescue operations continue in the southwestern city of Abadan on May 24, 2022. (TASNIM NEWS/AFP)
    Iranians gather at the site where a ten-storey building collapsed as rescue operations continue in the southwestern city of Abadan on May 24, 2022. (TASNIM NEWS/AFP)
  • Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan, on November 19, 2021. (Fatmeh Nasr / ISNA / AFP)
    Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan, on November 19, 2021. (Fatmeh Nasr / ISNA / AFP)

This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

In June of 2009, millions of Iranians joined protests nationwide in the wake of the “reelection” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, in a vote widely recognized as rigged.

The regime resorted to heavy violence to put down the demonstrations, attacking and arresting protesters and killing dozens of them — most resonantly Neda Agha-Solton, a philosophy student whose shooting by a gunman from the Basij paramilitary group was captured on film and broadcast worldwide.

While the scale of the protests, and the brutality of the regime in suppressing them, made headlines around the world and created the brief sense that the ayatollahs’ hold on power might be slipping, the international community provided little encouragement to the outraged Iranian public.

Barack Obama hailed the “amazing ferment,” but despite the Islamic Republic’s record of domestic repression, international terrorism and a rogue nuclear program, the US president made plain that his administration was not about to help Iranians achieve regime change.

“It’s not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling,” he declared.

In this June 15, 2009 file photo, hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims there was voting fraud in Friday’s election, turn out to protest the result of the election at a mass rally in Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

Added the White House press secretary, “This is a debate inside of Iran for Iranians.”

The moment passed. The regime shrugged off even this major eruption of public dissent.

Neda Agha-Soltan (Courtesy)

Thirteen years later, a delegation of Iranian-born activists known as the Shoshana group, Muslims and Jews, many of them living in the US, visited Israel this week. Prominent among them was the veteran anti-regime journalist Nazenin Ansari, who runs the Kayhan London online Persian-language media outlet, which needless to say is banned in Iran.

In a series of meetings, notably with officials at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the delegation argued that, to some extent, it’s 2009 all over again in Iran. Then, vast, nationwide public dissent was galvanized by a manifestly fraudulent election; today, Ansari and her colleagues told me, ordinary Iranians from all walks of life are agitating in numbers that may not compare to 13 years ago but reflect immense dissatisfaction and despair with the regime, its misplaced priorities, and the consequent economic malaise.

Prices are being repeatedly hiked for food and other necessities, unemployment is soaring, and child labor is on the rise, said Ansari and two of her colleagues, Zohreh Mizrahi, the president of the Persian American Civic Action Network, and Dr. Amir Hamidi, a former attaché at the US Embassy in the UAE. In recent months, everyone from teachers to bus drivers to prison wardens to firefighters has been on strike over non-payment of wages.

Shoshana group delegates (from left) Nazenin Ansari, Amir Hamidi and Zohreh Mizrahi at the Times of Israel’s offices, May 30, 2022 (DH / Times of Israel)

In response to the escalating public unrest, the regime has in recent weeks returned to a familiar tactic of disrupting internet access to the outside world, AP reported on Tuesday, and is currently trying to ensure that days of protests sparked by the collapse of a 10-story building under construction in the southwestern city of Abadan, in which at least 33 people were killed, go as unreported as possible.

‘What’s happening?’ the cleric stage-whispered to a bodyguard

On Sunday night in Abadan, a cleric loyal to Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei was shouted down when he tried to address mourners near the site. In AP’s telling: “Surrounded by bodyguards, the ayatollah, in his 60s, tried to continue but couldn’t. ‘What’s happening?’ the cleric stage-whispered to a bodyguard, who then leaned in to tell him something. The cleric then tried to address the crowd again: ‘My dears, please keep calm, as a sign of respect to Abadan, its martyrs and the dear (victims) the whole Iranian nation is mourning tonight.’ The crowd responded by shouting: “Shameless!”

Riot police have been using tear gas and firing into the air to try to disperse what AP has described as large protests. Ansari and her colleagues said their information is that, as in 2009, the security forces are also firing directly into the crowds.

Iranians gather at the site where a ten-story building collapsed as rescue operations continue in the southwestern city of Abadan on May 24, 2022. (TASNIM NEWS / AFP)

The Shoshana delegation’s contention is that the scale of Iranian public opposition to the regime is again being underestimated by the international community, with the regime managing to prevent a clear picture of the protests reaching the West.

“The Iranian people want regime change,” Ansari said firmly, “and they don’t need outside military help. They can do it on their own…

“But the lack of outside support could cause them to lose hope,” added Mizrahi.

The visiting delegation also took pains to distinguish — and urged the international community to distinguish — between “Iranians” and the regime. Iranians, unlike the regime, don’t hate the West and don’t hate Israel, they said.

The demonstrators are not anti-US, or anti-Israel or pro-nuclear

When I asked how it could be that, in their telling, the Iranian public was immune to decades of anti-Israel incitement, they offered three explanations. First, older Iranians remember the pre-ayatollah era when Iran and Israel were allied; second, the Iranian public largely disbelieves whatever the regime tells them, and third, Iranians recognize Israel’s practical, technical achievements — capabilities they know could help Iran.

Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province’s lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan, on November 19, 2021. (Fatmeh Nasr / ISNA / AFP)

Among Iran’s biggest challenges is water scarcity, Ansari noted. “And Iranians know Israel is incredible on tackling water scarcity” — via desalination, drip irrigation and so on.

In this context, regime legislation that criminalizes any use of Israeli technology is one more source of public anger. “The demonstrators are not anti-US, or anti-Israel or pro-nuclear,” said Ansari, whose Kahyan London website is documenting the protests. Rather, ordinary Iranians resent the vast channeling of funds to Hezbollah and to Gaza terror groups, to weapons development, and to the nuclear program. “Not Gaza; not Lebanon; my life for Iran,” is a popular sentiment, she said. And another: “The enemy is here. They lie when they say it is in America.”

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri (left) and Commander of the Army Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi visit an underground drone base tunnel belonging to the Iranian military in the heart of the country’s western Zagros Mountains, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)

The Shoshana group delegates were appreciative that the Foreign Ministry agreed to meet with them, and hope their message struck home. Hamidi said they look to the day when the people of Iran and of Israel are at peace, in what have been touted as the Cyrus Accords — a kind of Jewish-Persian version of the Abraham Accords, evoking Cyrus the Great’s liberation of the Israelites from Babylonian captivity in 538 BCE.

The international community failed the Iranian public in 2009. And it failed them again in 2015, in freeing up colossal sums of money to the regime when the JCPOA nuclear deal was signed — most of which, said Hamidi, was allocated for the darkest of purposes.

Now Iranians are back out on the streets, said the visiting ex-Iranians. Their interests, Israel’s interests, and the free world’s interests, they stressed, require that we support them.

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