As much as the Islamic regime in Iran may deny it, a serious problem is on its hands. The new generation of Iranians seeking economic stability and individual freedom lost its fear last week, taking the streets by the thousands and chanting, “We don’t want an Islamic republic.”
The protests began last week as a response to skyrocketing food prices but rapidly became something larger than an economic outcry. Citizens in at least eight major Iranian cities shouted, “Death to Hezbollah” and demanded Tehran withdraw from its various international entanglements, including civil wars in Syria and Yemen and assorted Hezbollah projects in Latin America.
Little evidence has surfaced yet that the protests are organized or have spawned any opposition leaders. It is too early to tell how long the protesters can keep the pressure on the regime to change. In their endeavors, however, it is precisely to Latin America that Iranian protesters should look for guidance – in Iran’s ally Venezuela, where nearly a year of daily protests did nothing to stop socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro from consolidating his power.
Venezuela’s protests – triggered, too, by growing hunger – succeeded in putting the world on notice that socialists had once again caused a major humanitarian and political crisis upon coming to power. They failed in actually solving the problems they identified. Below are five lessons Iranians should learn about what the Venezuelans did right and where they stumbled in calling for a change in their country.
Peaceful, Creative Protests Work
That Venezuela’s growing famine, barely functional medical system, and bold political repression are global common knowledge is in large part the product of creative, peaceful protesters making a statement in Caracas by defying the regime. The 2017 wave of protests in the country gave the world nothing if not unforgettable images: the nude protester facing a hailstorm of rubber bullets holding nothing but a Bible; an unknown woman standing silently before an armored military truck, Tiananmen-Square-style; Venezuela’s famous violinist protester, beaten and forced to watch a rape for playing the national anthem in public.
Without these images, a movement in Latin America against Maduro, and particularly the Organization of American States (OAS), would be unlikely. With these images replaced by violence, this movement would be almost impossible.
Iranian officials, clearly conscious of this reality, have endeavored to keep cameras away from the protests, though some images surfacing in the past week – most notably, that of a woman waving a hijab on a stick – suggest the protesters understand the power of peaceful imagery.
Playing the Regime’s Game Hurts Protesters’ Morale
Where Venezuela’s street protesters succeeded in attracting international attention, the government’s official opposition failed by adopting policies that enabled the regime. For years, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a Venezuelan opposition coalition led by socialists, attempted to engage in dialogue with the regime. Venezuela saw minimal protests throughout 2016 largely because the opposition leadership was too busy in “dialogues” with Maduro that resulted in no concrete changes in the country. It happened again last year, when Maduro called for a round of elections in which he decreed who could run for office and controlled the institutions counting the votes.
The protesters on the streets rejected Maduro’s mockery of democracy. The MUD participated, losing a number of member parties along the way. By November, the MUD had called for another round of talks with the government, and protests in the country were all but unheard of.
The lesson: dictatorships use aimless “dialogue” to buy time when protests begin to pressure them. Iran, Venezuela’s ally and mentor state, is likely to attempt a similar strategy that, if accepted, will end in a similar way.
International Awareness Saves Lives
Fun as it may seem sometimes to mock those seeking awareness for dire international crises, in 2017, Venezuela proved to be the rare situation in which awareness saves lives. Dictatorships can only get away with so much oppression in broad daylight, and name recognition can mean life or death for a political prisoner. Thanks to daily protests against the regime, Venezuela’s crisis made global headlines for months last year.
The results: when the Venezuelan regime attempted to disappear opposition leader Leopoldo López out of prison into a hospital for “medical” reasons, international pressure forced the regime not only to allow his family to see him, but to place López under house arrest. Yon Goicoechea, another opposition leader and political prisoner, spent 14 months behind bars after an arrest by secret police (Sebin); global advocacy resulted in his release. Antonio Ledezma, the rightful mayor of Caracas, also received provisionary house arrest after his family and political allies turned his imprisonment into a global cause.
Keeping the pressure internationally may not trigger the regime change protesters want, but it yields real results for those saved by not being forgotten.
Pick a Coherent Ideology and Stick with It
Opposing a dictatorship is not enough to topple it. Successful movements present a coherent alternative championed by a united front of political leaders who entice a critical mass of people to push for change.
Venezuela’s protesters only met half of this challenge. As noted above, the opposition appeared united only in their rejection of Maduro. Some leaders of the opposition were socialists and demanded only that elections occur – without specifying that they be free and fair. Others identified the socialist system as the problem and have demanded a full overhaul of Venezuela’s institutions to create a free and democratic capitalist state. Yet more leaders demanded individual fixes, like the liberation of political prisoners or humanitarian aid for the hungry. Outside of “no more Maduro,” the opposition’s message was, and, sadly, continues to be, a mess.
It remains unclear who the opposition is in Iran or whether they have any established leadership structure within the protests. As they are organic, it is possible the leaders of this movement do not know who they are quite yet. But when leaders surface – and they always do – they would be wise to ensure to present a coherent ideological front to keep the fires burning.
United Leadership Is Key
The aforementioned ideological discrepancies in the Venezuelan opposition resulted in personal scuffles among opposition leaders, which Maduro’s regime was wise to exploit.
Leaders within the MUD remained members of the Socialist International while opposing a socialist tyrant in their country. Senior MUD member Henry Ramos Allup is a vice president of the international organization. The presence of socialists in the opposition confused rank and file protesters – who assumed they were protesting against socialism – and the more ideological coherent elements of the opposition, such as Ledezma and Vente Venezuela leader María Corina Machado, were forced to spend more energy against the MUD than Maduro himself.
The debate within the opposition raged further when Maduro, sensing the rift, called for elections to the “national constituents’ assembly,” a fraudulent legislature he created to replace the opposition-led National Assembly. Refocusing the debate away from himself and on whether the opposition should present itself in elections bought Maduro precious time to regroup, with allies like Iran and Turkey in tow.
In the meantime, the streets emptied, with protesters finding no reason to risk their lives for an opposition too busy fighting itself.
Iran’s mullahs could easily resort to the same playbook in the long term and cause tremendous discouragement among Iran’s secular youth. The movement’s would-be leaders should take heed of the tragedy that has become Venezuela’s opposition.