The return of the shah, sans jewels

Martyr-making and arrests in Iran only create more problems for Khamenei

An Iranian opposition supporter covers his face with a bloodstained hand during clashes with security forces in Tehran on 27 December 2009. Photograph: Getty Images

The wave of arrests that erupted in Iran yesterday marks the latest move by a government determined to silence growing opposition despite the spiralling political crisis in which it finds itself.

However, it seems that the arrests, along with the killing on Sunday of eight protesters, including a nephew of the Reform presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, will instead make martyrs out of mere men. The developments are also catalysing a movement that increasingly sees the regime of the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the light of the former, much-hated shah.

Ali Mousavi's death is especially significant, given that the violent crackdown on Sunday's protests in Tehran coincided with the Shia holiday of Ashura, a mourning event that remembers Iman Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad martyred in the year 680. Mousavi's body has since been seized, a move that analysts in Tehran have suggested is an attempt to prevent demonstrations from forming around his funeral.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of Iran's parliament who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts, told the New York Times:

Ashura is a very symbolic day in our culture and it revives the notion that the innocent were killed by a villain.

Similarly, Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, remarked:

For the regime to create a member of the Mousavi family as martyr on Ashura was most unwise. Shiite Islam even more than traditional Catholicism thrives on the blood of martyrs.

The arrests have only served to further villianise the regime. At least seven leading opposition activists have been arrested, including the opposition politician Ebrahim Yazdi, a foreign minister after the revolution, and three aides to Mousavi, prompting bloggers to label yesterday the "Iranian Night of the Long Knives".

More critically, Ayatollah Khamenei's legitimacy, already damaged by his support for Prime Minister Ahmadinejad's re-election in June, has been hardest hit by the government's decision to repress. Although he still commands the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard, new hatred for him has sprung up among Iranian elites and the opposition is now more unlikely than ever to back down.

Writing on his website, the Iranian film-maker Moshen Makhamalbaf was one of those who denounced Khamenei for Sunday's violence by comparing him to the the shah (translation taken from the New York Times):

I am so sorry that I fought against the shah when I was 17. He left the country when he realised that people no longer wanted him. But you are resisting until everyone else leaves the country.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.