The widely-publicised hanging of Reyhaneh Jabbari on Saturday cast doubt on western attempts at a rapprochement with Iran. Some Iranian Brits say that only the end of the ayatollahs’ regime can provide a solution. I spoke to them.
It’s Saturday afternoon outside Downing Street, and a small group of Iranians have gathered, as they often do, to call for democratic change in their mother country.
Today, their demonstrations are infused with particular grief. Reyhaneh Jabbari, a 26-year-old interior designer, has, just hours ago, been executed for premeditated murder in Iran. She had confessed to stabbing a former employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, but said that she was defending herself against an attempted rape and that she did not strike the killer blow. Human rights groups’ numerous concerns about the process of her trial have fallen on deaf ears.
Today’s protesters support the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a group with international chapters, founded in 1981, which describes itself as a broad coalition of democratic Iranian organisations. They have allies in parliament; they advertise a meeting of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, which features several MPs and Lords, at which a representative of theirs will be speaking. And demographics may draw more Brits to them – the number of people born in Iran and living in the UK rose by 60% between the 2001 and 2011 censuses.
The protesters call their president, Hassan Rouhani, “murderous moderate” and refer to the acid attacks on women and 1,000 executions that have taken place during his tenure. They suggest that the British government, in seeking a thaw in relations – David Cameron’s meeting with Rouhani in September was the first between a British prime minister and an Iranian president since the revolution in 1979 – are reading too much in to minimal changes.
“The current regime is not built for this century,” says Farid, an activist handing out fliers about the NCRI to passers-by. “It’s an Islamic fundamentalist regime. They all believe in Supreme Leader power. They say that he gets his power from God.” Another protester, Marzi, concurs: “They present themselves as liberal, moderate, hardline – there’s no difference.”
The fact that Iran ignored western pleas to spare Reyhaneh Jabbari was a statement of strength. The spread of ISIS, who are Sunni, has made Shia Iran very valuable to the west. The protesters consequently accept that there is no magic solution for the British government. Farid says: “You have to go for regime change – how, I don’t know. Not through international intervention.”
But he castigates the British diplomatic position as playing in to the hands of Iran’s self-interested rulers. “The suggestion of uniting with Iran against ISIS was very strange. Iran is showing no interest in being allies with the UK. And the UK is marginalising the Iranian opposition.” He points to links between the Iranian regime and terrorism – including IED attacks that have killed British and American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rebel soldiers in Syria – to show that the policy is self-defeating.
What, then, might the vehicle of change be? The Green movement, which made international headlines in 2009? Amir, who holds a picture of Reyhaneh Jabbari at the demonstrations, thinks not. “The Green Party don’t have a democratic direction. They want to go through the regime. We opposed the Shah and we oppose them.” Farid points out that they have been implicated in a 1988 massacre.
He says that the Green Party were “not brave” five years ago, but adds a note of optimism. “I could feel the atmosphere. It was an excuse to show frustration against the regime.
“All the ingredients for popular resistance in Iran are there; the only thing missing is foreign pressure. I think there is a strong feeling in the youth that wants change. They want to live in the family of nations, they want to travel, they want experiences.”