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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

The Iranian people deserve a more dynamic system of government that revives the country’s fortunes

A new sanctions regime would send a clear message to the ayatollahs that the will of the Iranian people cannot be ignored

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blames foreign foes for nationwide protests, although there is no evidence to support that claim / Courtesy of the office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blames foreign foes for nationwide protests, although there is no evidence to support that claim / Courtesy of the office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP

Ever since Donald Trump came to power a year ago, he has attracted considerable derision over the hardline stand he has taken against North Korea and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Critics have accused the US president of being a modern-day Dr Strangelove, a man hellbent on provoking nuclear armageddon by directly confronting North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and threatening his country with total destruction if he continues with his attempts to build nuclear weapons capable of hitting the American mainland.

But in their desperation to lampoon Mr Trump, the crucial point these critics appear to have overlooked is that Washington’s uncompromising stance now appears to be paying dividends.

After decades during which American diplomacy has done little more than appease North Korea, Mr Trump’s approach is having a profound impact on Mr Kim’s conduct.

Having initially dispatched a fleet of warships to intimidate Pyongyang, the Trump administration then brought further pressure to bear by persuading the UN to impose tougher sanctions, while at the same pressuring China to use its influence to bring its troublesome neighbour – and long-standing ally – to heel.

The result is clear to see in the conciliatory tone Mr Kim adopted in his New Year address when he offered to reopen communication channels with South Korea and even raised the prospect of sending North Korean athletes to compete in the winter games Seoul is due to host next month.

It remains to be seen just how much this new spirit of detente between Pyongyang and Seoul will accomplish. But the fact these two long-standing foes are now talking to each other for the first time in years is a vindication of Mr Trump’s no-nonsense approach.

And if Mr Trump’s robust tactics can deliver results with a rogue state like North Korea, then why not adopt the same tactics against another of the world’s leading rogue states, namely Iran?

It is now abundantly clear from the statements made by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as major-general Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, that the Islamic Republic has no intention of heeding the calls of the anti-government protesters, who are demanding economic reform as well as an end to Iran’s military involvement in Arab states such as Yemen and Iraq.

As has become the custom whenever the regime experiences opposition, Mr Khamenei has simply denounced the protests as the work of the “enemies of Iran”, while Mr Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards chief, sought to play down the scale of the protests, making the rather bizarre claim that only 15,000 people had been involved in the protests nationwide, although reports from the cities involved suggest the figure is infinitely higher.

But in an authoritarian regime like Iran, it is virtually impossible to gain a definitive picture of the scale of the protests. Similarly, given the uncompromising measures the regime uses to crush any form of dissent, the anti-government protestors have little likelihood of prevailing with their demands for change without some form of outside help.

It is for this reason that, unlike what happened during the 2009 Green Revolution, the major world powers are not turning their back on Iran’s protestors and instead applying intense pressure on the regime to accommodate their views and undertake wholesale reform.

As recent events in Pyongyang have proved, economic sanctions can deliver results – as long as they are properly applied. Indeed, one of the main factors in president Hassan Rouhani’s successful election in 2013 was his commitment to deal with the crippling sanctions that had been imposed on Tehran regarding its wilful non-compliance with the international community over its nuclear programme.

At that time the sanctions were so effective that the Iranian economy had been brought to its knees and Mr Rouhani was almost forced to beg the major powers for a nuclear deal to get the sanctions lifted.

The controversies over whether the major powers should, in return, have secured a better deal with Tehran have been well-aired. But the key point is that the sanctions implemented against Iran until 2015 worked to devastating effect – and, with the right political will, could be made to do so again.

For this to happen the world needs strong leadership from Washington. It was former president Barack Obama’s decision to turn his back on the Green Revolution that allowed the agents of repression in Iran – the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij – to suppress the revolts.

But the Trump administration has made it clear it has no intention of repeating the mistake and is already pressuring the UN to address the matter.

The implementation of a new sanctions regime against Iran would certainly send a clear message to the ayatollahs that the outside world is no longer willing to tolerate their refusal to acknowledge the will of the Iranian people. Nearly four decades after the creation of the Islamic Republic, the ayatollahs’ warped interpretation of what an Islamic government should look like appears tired and anachronistic.

What the Iranian people desire and deserve is a new, more dynamic system of government, one that revives the country’s fortunes and fulfils the enormous potential that lies within.

The economic landscape of the modern Middle East is changing fast. Iran’s predominantly youthful population only needs to look across the tranquil waters of the Gulf to see what can be done when benign Arab governments allow the true spirit of entrepreneurial endeavour to flourish.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor and author of Khomeini’s Ghost

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