The following interview is an excerpt and English translation of a discussion between RED’s comrade, Iranian journalist Mani Zarabi, and Andrea Backhaus, which originally appeared in Zeit Online.
Neither Trump Nor the Iranian Regime: The Beginning of an End
Since the killing of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by the US, the Iranian people are in turmoil. Only hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrated supposed national cohesion in large-scale funeral marches. Since it became clear that the Iranian regime is responsible for shooting down a Ukrainian plane that left 176 dead, thousands have taken to the streets against the regime. People want to change the whole system, says the Iranian journalist Mani Zarabi – the name is a pseudonym for his protection. He writes for a large reformist Iranian newspaper and international media, being currently outside the country and has answered the questions by email.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Zarabi, we are getting contradictory images from Iran: Many Iranians celebrated the killed Qassem Soleimani as a national hero, others burned his pictures in public. What is happening in Iran right now?
Mani Zarabi: Behind the funeral marches for Soleimani was a huge propaganda machine. Even foreign media got the impression that all Iranians would worship him as a national hero. The regime has quickly understood that the more cities and people take part in the funeral march, the stronger the images of a nation united in grief. The regime staged the whole spectacle to distract attentions from the bloody crackdown of November 2019 uprising in which more than 1,000 people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why did this propaganda machine work so well?
Zarabi: For a long time a certain image of Qassem Soleimani was built in Iran: he was introduced as a patriot who worked tirelessly for his country and his people. Many ordinary Iranians and the media have taken this story uncritically. In regional as well as international media, Soleimani was portrayed as a hero who fought the “Islamic State” rather than the man whose Shia militias have helped Bashar al-Assad in Syria to kill hundreds of thousands of people in order to keep him in power.
The “national security” narrative served to control public opinion and strengthen cohesion. Soleimani was considered an important guardian of this national security. The Iranian regime has long denied what role the Quds Force led by Soleimani played in Syria, for example. Only when ISIS grew stronger did the leadership admit that Iran-led militias are operating in the region. Their own security interests were then given as a justification for that – instead of admitting that Iran primarily wants to establish its own power interests in many countries in the Middle East.
ZEIT ONLINE: For a few days now, thousands of Iranians have been taking to the streets because they have just enough of these lies and cover-ups?
Zarabi: First of all: there have been protests against the regime in Iran since the 1979 revolution. There were several uprisings in the 1990s, Green Movement protests after the 2009 presidential election, and protests continued in 2017, most recently last November. We are now seeing how frustrated people are. Corruption is widespread; the whole system is in trouble. The leading elites are no longer able to create a social consensus. They are trying to blame the United States for their own failure, as always. But people understood that their enemy is at home.
There have been protests against the regime in Iran before the US has withdrawn from the nuclear deal and imposed new sanctions. People know that the reasons for the economic problems are much deeper. Even under the sanctions, Parliament awards most of the budget to the theocratic sections and their religious projects, instead of investing in such important areas as housing, education, or health care. This antisocial distribution of public funds has led to the impoverishment and unemployment and also to political disenchantment of the poorer classes with the regime. The sanctions further exacerbate the situation. We Iranians don’t want to choose between Donald Trump and the Supreme Leader, because both options are terrible. Neither Trump nor the Iranian regime is interested in the well-being of the Iranians.
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you think the protests can lead to the overthrow of the regime?
Zarabi: the regime is losing legitimacy. Whether the protests will lead to a collapse is hard to say. The regime is tough on the demonstrators; it is difficult for them to organize. There is no free press or free civil society in Iran. Despite everything, I believe that we are now experiencing the beginning of the end of the regime. The protests will not simply fade away.
How things will continue for us Iranians also depends on what happens to our sisters and brothers in Iraq and Lebanon. There too, people have been protesting against their rulers and Iranian influence for months. In Lebanon, Iran secures its influence through the Hezbollah militia, in Iraq through the Shia militias. Iran is afraid of losing its influence by a democratic change in these countries. The Lebanese, Iraqis and Iranian protesters all have one thing in common: they reject their corrupt regimes in their entirety.
ZEIT ONLINE: What have to be done to improve the situation for liberal, progressive people like you in Iran?
Zarabi: It is not enough to exchange some names or administration. The protesters want to replace the regime with a democratic leadership.
Immediately after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the parliament has provided 200 million Euros for the Quds Force, while at the same time it votes against increasing the minimum wages in accordance with the inflation. People protest against such decisions, but also against privatization, growing unemployment, air pollution, and the lack of health care. The Iranians also want to be able to express their opinion freely, as well as freedom of the press and assembly. They want a total redistribution of wealth and power.