Most of us know the extremely rare but slightly creepy feeling of driving down a road or seeing a hill or listening to a conversation and being overcome by the absolute conviction that we’ve seen it or heard it before. Perhaps in an earlier incarnation. Or maybe just a few years ago, though we may not be able to place the experience in a time frame. It took me quite a while before a trusted friend was able to pinpoint why I found Iran’s latest miniature street revolution so weird. And so familiar. And so chilling.
Let’s run through the sequence of events. A large number of young, disenfranchised and poor/unemployed young people take to the streets of a Middle East nation to complain about their poverty, the corruption of the regime, their own lack of freedom – and quickly, they turn against their own leaders. Perfectly justified. But within days, guns are being used against opponents of the government which both claims the people’s right to freedom of speech but warns that those who use violence will pay the price. At least 21 – two of them members of the security forces – are killed as protestors respond to the shoot-to-kill tactics of the governments’ armed supporters.
The most powerful leader – supported by state militias – complains that the unrest is fomented by foreigners, traitors, spies. The most senior leader in the state puts it all down to “money, weapons, politics and intelligence services”. America, Britain and Saudi Arabia are named as the principal suspects. And then vast pro-government crowds – dwarfing in numbers (if not in enthusiasm) the demonstrators, march in their hundreds of thousands to condemn the street protests, holding pictures of their beloved leaders above their heads. The regime calls the protests “finished”.
The parallels are not exact – the similarities much more so – but isn’t this pretty much, word for word, what happened in Syria in 2011? Isn’t this the same scenario, the same stage-play, the same script? A mass of impoverished rural poor – crushed by the madcap agricultural policies of their own government – began to demonstrate against the Assad administration, then against its corruption and then – quickly – demanded its overthrow, just as demonstrators in Iran can today be seen burning posters of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and President Hassan Rouhani. The security forces began to shoot down protestors. And – much earlier than we believed at the time – armed opponents of the regime in the spring of 2011 began to attack the Syrian military, along the northern Lebanese border near Homs and in Dera’a.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime immediately claimed that a “foreign hand” was at work behind the ‘terrorists’ – a word not used (yet) by the Iranian government about their armed opponents – and named America and Saudi Arabia as conspiring to bring civil war to Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians loyal to the regime paraded through Damascus each week waving posters of Assad. Repeatedly, the Syrian government referred to the crisis as “finished”.
It was not. But, despite the efforts of America and Saudi Arabia (and Britain’s support for “regime change”), Assad clung on with the same tenacity as the Iranian regime crushed the 2009 protests after the very dodgy presidential election “victory” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a man who had a lot in common with Donald Trump).
Now I shall drag forth my favourite, creaking but still relevant institution, the Department of Home Truths. No, Iran is no Western-style democracy when its officials decide who may or may not stand for president. But it does have a genuinely working parliament and after the experience of Trump’s triumph – not to mention a George W.Bush victory of doubtful provenance – comparing Iranian freedoms with American freedoms may not be a great idea right now.
My own concerns lie in the inherent cruelty of a regime which can send a young and innocent woman to the gallows as a prison official yells taunts at her mother on the daughter’s mobile phone. I’ve said before that the gallows stain Iran far more than the centrifuge.
You can negotiate over a nuclear facility. You can’t reboot death. Take, for example, Delara Darabi – only 23 years old – who was dragged to the gallows in 2009, screaming to her mother on her mobile phone: “Oh mother, I can see the hangman’s noose in front of me. They are going to execute me. Please save me.”
Delara had falsely confessed to killing her father’s cousin to save her boyfriend from the hangman. As the poor girl was strung up, her male executioner grabbed her phone and sneered to her mother that nothing could save her daughter now. Then president Ahmadinejad told me the same year that he was against capital punishment. But the Iranian judiciary was “independent” of the government, he announced. “I do not want to kill even an ant.”
He did nothing, of course. Almost 700 human beings were dragged to the gibbet in 2015, another 567 in 2016. Many of the victims, to be sure, were drug dealers. But their trials were shambolic and the executions contaminate the Islamic Republic as surely as they besmirch the authority of Hassan Rouhani, the man whom we were enjoined to trust after the Tehran nuclear agreement.
But now let’s return to those haunting parallels between Iran and Syria. The Israeli war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 was an attempt to destroy Syria’s closest ally in Lebanon and Iran’s protégé. It failed. The Hezbollah claimed they won. They did not, but the Israelis lost. The next target became Syria in 2011. We know only part of the mournful, atrocious story since then. But the West – and Israel – lost again. Assad survived. He has won – with the help of those pesky Russians and the Hezbollah and Iran.
And so now, is it Iran’s turn? Almost the same tactics. The same screenplay. The same enemies Saudi Arabia watches with delight. Britain hums and haws about human rights – that is Boris’s contribution – but the Americans are gung-ho on the side of the innocent (if increasingly dangerous) protestors. “The world is watching.” Sure it is. But what puzzles me is that while Iran makes its usual claims of US conspiracies, the American media – and our own, for that matter – have not in this context once mentioned the name of a US intelligence official who was getting star billing only six months ago as the man appointed by Trump to run the CIA’s Iran operations.
How very odd. For the New York Times, back in June, was profiling the new role of the “Dark Prince” – or “Ayatollah Mike” as he was also apparently dubbed – as one of “a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations” under the leadership of Mike Pompeo. “Iran has been one of the hardest targets for the CIA…” quoth the paper that publishes “all the news that’s fit to print”. “The challenge to start carrying out President Trump’s views falls to Mr D’Andrea, a chain-smoking convert to Islam … Perhaps no single CIA official is more responsible for weakening al-Qaeda … Mr Trump has appointed to the National Security Council hawks eager to contain [sic] Iran and push regime change, the groundwork for which would most likely be laid through CIA covert action.”
In the years after the 11 September attacks, the New York Times notes, D’Andrea was “deeply involved in the detention and interrogation programme, which resulted in the torture of a number of prisoners and was condemned in a sweeping Senate report in 2014 as inhumane and ineffective”. D’Andrea took over the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre in 2006 and, according to the paper, “operatives under his direction played a pivotal role in 2008 in the killing of Imad Mougniyeh”, one of Hezbollah’s most senior officials (albeit in semi-retirement) in Damascus. D’Andrea was apparently also instrumental in vastly increasing the use of pilotless drone attacks on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
A formidable adversary for the Iranians, therefore – as well as the Syrians – but it’s very odd we haven’t heard any more about him for all these months. Isn’t he taking a serious interest in the latest events in Iran? Surely he is. That’s his job, isn’t it? But why this silence? Are we unable to connect any threads here? Is there perhaps, maybe, by chance alone, nudge-is-as-good-as-a-wink, some link between the “intelligence services” about whom poor old Khamenei waffles in Tehran and the “intelligence services” run by Michael D’Andrea, the man who must start “carrying out President Trump’s views”? I’m not at all sure that “the world is watching”. But it should be.