Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Tehran, November 23, 2015.
The collapse of Venezuelan society under the dictatorial and socialist Maduro regime cannot fail to remind us of Iran under the Islamic Republic. Like Maduro, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has put the enrichment of his mafia clan and an exploitative revolutionary ideology before the needs of the Iranian people. Like Venezuela, Iran is experiencing black outs, water and food shortages, and collapse of order in parts of the country. And like Maduro, Khamenei uses the Basij, literally meaning Collectivos-or Maduro’s irregular armed forces- to instill fear in the population. But there are some key differences between the two as well.
If Maduro falls, the U.S. can learn much from the successes and failures of its strategy and how they can be applied to Iran. Many Iranians, much like Venezuelans, are ready to rid themselves of their dictatorial regime, as mass protests, strikes and civil disobedience have shown in the last decade. And they welcome American support. As difficult as it may seem now, the path can open toward a future in which both the democratic Iranian opposition and its American and international friends can play a decisive role in bringing freedom to Iran.
The key obstacle to change in Iran has been and will always be the massive and effective security forces. Khamenei spends billions upon billions of dollars on the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij, Law Enforcement Forces, and other official and unofficial security and repressive organizations. The Iraqi Hashd al Shaabi and Lebanese Hezbollah have also been recruited to maintain order in southwestern Iran, a region which recently experienced devastating floods.
Khamenei has managed to create terror throughout Iran and maintain his rule through brute force despite widespread civil resistance. Maduro may be brutal, but Khamenei’s regime is the master of terror and violence. International organizations, including UN bodies, have amply recorded the gross violations of human rights for four decades of the Islamic Republic.
Yet like Venezuela’s military, the Iranian military, including the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional army, the Artesh, are reported to be experiencing deep dissatisfaction and even the inability to pay salaries of rank and file soldiers. Many members of the Artesh, a draftee armed force, are reported to be malnourished and even homeless.
The Guards always fair better, but the virtual economic blockade being placed on Iran due to the regime’s support for terrorism, among many other harmful policies, could translate into widespread dissatisfaction even within the inner sanctum of Khamenei’s Praetorian Guard. Lest we forget, there is precedent for defections within the highest echelons of the regime, as General Ali Reza Asgari’s 2007 “disappearance”, widely reported to have been a defection - showed. It took some time, but eventually senior members of Maduro’s military did peel away. So may some of Khamenei’s top commanders, if the situation gets so bad in Iran that they see no other way out.
Finally, Venezuela is lucky to have Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márque, the opposition leader who has been recognized by more than fifty countries as President of Venezuela. A fearless young man, Guaidó has become the brains and leading spirit of the revolt against Maduro’s dictatorship.
Iran does not have a Guido, yet. But it does have a widespread and well networked opposition that may not always work in synch, but nevertheless keeps hammering at the legitimacy of Khamenei’s regime. And there are prominent personalities and groups within the opposition who are playing effective roles, including Prince Reza Pahlavi, Masih Alinejad, the new opposition group Iran Revival, countless women freedom activists, environmental activists, labor organizations, teachers’ unions, students, and even farmers, truckers, and gay rights activists.
Khamenei is still strong. His men have the guns. But every day Iranian women refuse to comply with the compulsory hijab, crowds rescue them from being harassed by the morality police, and random dissidents shout slogans against the regime and in support of Pahlavi. Iranians want fundamental change- the disbanding of the Islamic Republic once and for all, to be replaced by a government of their own choosing. This can be achieved through an open and free national referendum, free elections, and an entirely new constitution. But Khamenei must go first.
When the time comes and Iranians pour into the streets again, Washington should unequivocally side with the democratic opposition and its representatives. America must also leave a door open for defecting regime officials while it crafts a way to empower Iranians seeking freedom for their country. Iranians are closely watching Washington’s reaction to popular uprisings across the world, from Sudan to Algeria and Venezuela. Success in achieving freedom in Venezuela will boost Iranians’ enthusiasm and hope for positive change. But the U.S. should be less hesitant in siding with forces that will determine the future of Iran. Those forces will burst forth more powerful than ever before once Khamenei and the Guards’ tight grip on Iran weakens. That moment has not come yet, but the path to it is wide open.
Alireza Nader is founder and CEO of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington