Iran Hijab Protests: Why Regime Change Is Easier Said Than Done

The existential threat Iran has faced over the last four decades has ended up making it more resilient and self-reliant to fend off regime change attempts

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At the peak of protests over Mahsa Amini’s alleged death in police custody following her detention for violating Iran’s dress code, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian offered the West a reality check. In an interview with National Public Radio on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Session, he ruled out the possibility of a regime change on the back of the protests he suggested the West was trying to play on. Amirabdollahian said Amini’s death was being probed seriously as per the promise of President Ebrahim Raisi, who called her family and offered condolences. Amirabdollahian blamed foreign media for fuelling the protests over the tragic death and asked the West not to destabilize Iran.

Regime change has been a recurring theme in Iranian discourse. It has had resonance since 1953 when the West removed democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (1880-1967) from power for keeping his poll promise of nationalizing oil to invest its profits for the welfare of the poor. Mossadegh, who was educated at Institut d’études politiques de Paris and received his doctorate in law from the University of Neuchâtel Switzerland, was diametrically opposite to the current Iranian rulers that the West loathes.

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A liberal, rationalist, who believed in pluralism and secularism and opposed obscurantism, Mossadegh built a political base largely by calling for nationalizing the oil. Mossadegh’s ideals counted for little when he ended London-based Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company’s monopoly over Iran’s oil and aroused the British ire. Britain imposed economic sanctions and a naval embargo in retaliation over the end of almost five decades years of its monopoly over Iran’s petroleum extraction, marketing, and sales. It forced British technicians to leave Iran and blocked Iran’s exports to cripple its lifeline petroleum industry. Britain laid claim to Iranian oil and planned to overthrow Mosaddegh. But the British embassy in Iran was soon shut while the undercover agents, who were plotting a coup posing as diplomats, were deported to prevent Mosaddegh’s removal.

Mossadegh’s defiance, however, prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to abandon the American non-interventionist policy in 1952 and sealed the Iranian leader’s fate. Eisenhower, who saw Mossadegh’s nationalization as a threat to multinational enterprises, rushed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Kermit Roosevelt to Tehran, where he oversaw Mossadegh’s overthrow in just three weeks as part of covert Operation Ajax.

In August 2013, the CIA admitted for the first time to its involvement in the coup against Mossadegh. British and American intelligence agents operating from the American embassy in Tehran successfully plotted it by buying off the Iranian press to circulate propaganda against Mossadegh, roping in members of the Islamic clergy, and rogue Iranian military elements. In August 1953, Mossadegh was banished to spend the rest of his life under house arrest in his native village. A year later, Iran split 50–50 oil revenues with an international consortium that controlled its marketing and production.

The West chose its economic interests over its democratic ideals to help the transfer of power from Mossadegh to the Shah. It would do everything to shore up Pahlavi including by gifting him a nuclear programme in 1957. The CIA and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, trained the Shah’s secret police force, whose coercive powers played a crucial role in sustaining his regime over the next two decades.

The West, by overthrowing Mossadegh and backing the Shah’s brutal rule, would eventually prepare the ground for the 1979 revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mossadegh’s removal was among the reasons cited for the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini’s system of governance, which has since endured thanks to constant fears of regime change and repeated but failed attempts to achieve it, is a far cry from Mossadegh’s ideals. Mossadegh symbolised Iran’s secular nationalism. He believed in constitutionalism and civic nationalism while Khomeini’s system allowed clerics absolute political and legal authority.

The 444-day embassy seizure and captivity of American diplomats in Tehran following Khomeini’s revolution, too, was more of an attempt to prevent the 1953-style regime change. The US sanctioned Iran in retaliation and backed Iraqi dictator Saddam’s invasion of Iran to counter Khomeini’s revolution. The revolution prompted the Soviets to invade Afghanistan the same year fearing its exports to its backyard. The US countered this by resorting to the perversion of jihad to defeat the Soviets, which led to the creation of groups such as al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks and sparked global Islamophobia that has reached pandemic proportions.

The existential threat Iran has faced over the decades has also ended up making it more resilient and self-reliant to fend off regime change attempts. Saddam’s eight-year invasion, too, was part of the efforts to change the Iranian regime. Iran was forced to agree to an UN-brokered ceasefire with Saddam in September 1988 after he resorted to chemical weapons and Americans brought down an Iranian civilian aircraft, signalling an open siding with Iraq. It ended the 20th century’s longest war, which left an estimated a million dead.

The US would later invade Iraq to remove Saddam from power in 2003 on the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and to export democracy that it throttled in Iran in the 1950s. The 2003 Iraq war and the occupation that followed, directly and indirectly, claimed about half a million lives until 2011 and also ended up benefitting Iran. Tehran filled the vacuum the US left by withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, creating a corridor of influence up to the Mediterranean. It used this influence to prevent Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power in Syria despite all-out western efforts and to back Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranian influence in Iraq has continued to grow. Iraq depends on Iran for virtually everything–from chicken to eggs, milk, yogurt, and cosmetics.

Iran has also since the 1980s survived American sanctions, which have, among other things, led to over 200 accidents because of Tehran’s inability to buy aircraft parts. Despite odds, it created the region’s most extensive industrial base and emerged as one of the world’s top automobile cement, and steel manufacturers. Iran has been among the countries topping nanotechnology and stem-cell research. In 2012, Iran, which has successfully improved its military strength, ranked as the world’s 17th largest producer of scientific papers ahead of even Israel and Turkey. Two years later, Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win Fields Medal in 2014.

Mirzakhani has been among the top scientists Iran has produced as women have outnumbered men in universities over the last decade or so. This is another marker of how Iran has shown extraordinary resilience despite all odds since 1979. And with a little more breathing space, which it has not had for over four decades, more changes and easing of dress code norms for women are inevitable as long as they are organic and not intended to be just an excuse for engineering another regime change. Such interventions earlier have been disastrous for both the region and the West.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Siege of Islam’s Holiest Shrine in Mecca Cast Long Shadow

The Mecca siege, Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back to back in the same year triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions

The insurgents proved hard to dislodge as they carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In November 1979, self-styled preacher Juhayman al-Utaybi and his 200 followers mingled with around 50,000 worshippers at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca. They appeared to be like regular pilgrims who gather in Mecca daily from around the world until they pushed aside the imam after the dawn prayers. The intruders seized the prayer leader’s microphone and took out handguns and rifles hidden in coffins brought to the shrine on the pretext of funeral services. One of them, Khaled al-Yami, soon began to read out a prepared speech announcing the coming of the Mahdi, the messianic deliverer in Islamic eschatology believed to be a divinely guided man with extraordinary powers to usher in an era of justice.

Yami claimed Muslims had seen Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, the so-called Mahdi, in their dreams and now he was in their midst. He proclaimed that the end of days was near and that redeemer would restore justice as Juhayman directed his men to close the shrine’s gates, take positions in its minarets overlooking Mecca, and shoot anyone resisting. He would first pay homage to ‘the Mahdi’. His followers followed suit amid cries of ‘God is great.’

The worshippers, many of whom were foreigners and were initially unable to understand what was going on since the intruders spoke Arabic, tried to reach any exits that were still open, prompting the gunmen to fire a few gunshots. The bloodshed that followed was unprecedented as any violence is forbidden in Mecca as per the Quranic mandate. 

Juhyman and his men blatantly violated the mandate and fully controlled the shrine in about an hour and challenged the authority of the Saudi royal family whom they blamed for the degeneration of social and religious values through a modernization drive. He had earlier gone underground when authorities cracked down his ultra-conservative al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba group and wrote pamphlets criticising the royals for their ‘decadence’ and the clerics for colluding with them.

Juhyman believed Saudi Arabia needed a ‘heavenly intervention’ for salvation when he began preaching despite being poorly educated. He was involved in drug smuggling before repenting to find solace in religion but avoided addressing educated audiences as his classical Arabic, the language of Islamic scholars, was weak. 

Juhayman’s experience as a soldier in the Saudi National Guard, though, helped him organise the shrine’s takeover after identifying Qahtani as ‘the Mahdi’ as his attributes matched that of the messianic deliverer. It is believed that Mahdi’s first and father’s names will be similar to the prophet’s and will have a large forehead and a thin nose like an eagle. For Juhayman, Qahtani matched these attributes. But Qahtani was unconvinced initially and went into isolation before he was convinced that Juhayman was right and he was the ‘saviour’. 

In the run-up to the siege, rumours spread that Meccans and pilgrims saw Qahtani in their dreams in Mecca’s Grand Mosque holding Islam’s banner. The rumours coincided with Juhayman’s preparations in remote areas of Saudi Arabia for the takeover. 

The Saudi leadership found itself hamstrung as its key members were abroad. Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was in Tunisia and Prince Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, in Morocco. An ailing King Khaled and his defence minister Prince Sultan, who were left to coordinate the immediate response, failed to anticipate the scale of the problem and sent Saudi police to understand the scale of the crisis. The police proved no match to the rebels. Their cars were fired upon as they drove up to the shrine, prompting the National Guard to launch a hasty operation as the gravity of the situation became evident. 

The National Guard, too, found the insurgents hard to dislodge. Juhayman’s sharp-shooters carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail forcing Saudi authorities to press paratroopers, special forces, and armoured units into service. A security cordon was thrown around the shrine and artillery fire was directed towards its minarets while jets and helicopters hovered in the air. 

The rebels repelled the attacks despite getting outgunned and outnumbered over the next two days while the Saudi forces tried to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque, a two-floor building mostly of galleries and corridors spread across hundreds of meters. Casualties mounted to the hundreds as a result.

The insurgents set fire to carpets to create clouds of smoke before they hid behind columns and ambushed Saudi troops. A man-to-man confrontation followed within a cramped space. The problems were compounded when some Saudi soldiers refused to fight, citing the shrine’s sanctity and prompted authorities to seek a fatwa backing the military to use as much force. The fatwa paved the way for anti-tank-guided missiles and heavy guns to take out the rebels stationed on the minarets. Armoured personnel carriers were separately rushed to breach the gates.

Qahtani, meanwhile, thought he could expose himself but soon found his immortality was a fallacy as bullets hit him. Juhayman remained in denial telling his followers not to believe those who said Qahtani was injured. They continued fighting until Saudi forces took control of the mosque’s courtyard and the surrounding buildings on the sixth day.

But the crisis was far from over as the rebels retreated to rooms and cells at the shrine convinced Qahtani was alive. The situation worsened with the rebels pushing into the catacombs and forced the Saudis to seek the help of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who dispatched three advisers from a counter-terror unit secretly. The French team stayed at a hotel in the nearby Taif and devised a plan of flushing out the insurgents by filling the shrine’s basements with gas. Holes were accordingly dug every 50 metres to inject gas through them with the help of grenade explosions into the corner where the insurgents were holed up down in the basement.

The plan succeeded. Juhayman and his surviving followers also ran out of ammunition and food and gathered in a small room with soldiers throwing smoke bombs through a hole made in the ceiling. They were soon forced to surrender but Juhayman was unrepentant when he met Saudi officials and just asked for water. Juhayman and 63 rebels were executed across eight cities over a month later but the siege cast a long shadow.

The crisis had a profound effect on Osama Bin Laden, who blamed the Saudi ruling family for desecrating the shrine. Laden felt the crisis, which has been described as the first such transnational terrorist operation as the rebels included men from Middle Eastern countries and the US, could have been solved peacefully. The response to the siege prompted him to organise al-Qaida to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and to end western influences in the region.

The siege also strengthened the clergy and halted Saudi Arabia’s modernization. It pushed the royals on an ultra-conservative path marked by measures such as the ban on women from driving and the closure of theatres, which took four decades to reverse. The Saudi government increased the allocation for the religious establishment in oil revenues among other concessions to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. This allowed the clergy to develop a network of charities and educational institutes globally to spread its ultra-conservative ideology.

An information blackout thanks to the snapping of phone lines for the first 24 hours created much confusion. The US pointed fingers at Iran, which blamed the Americans and the Zionists and sparked anti-American demonstrations across the world. American embassies were stormed but the siege largely remained obscured. The attention remained focused on Iran, where the American embassy was overrun after the revolution two weeks earlier, and Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion a fortnight later. 

The three back-to-back events triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions.     

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan