West can help exiles change Iran for the better

The assault by Iran on its own people continued to attract scrutiny on Sunday, when an exiled journalist was nearly deported back to Tehran to face trial. Her case is the latest in a series of crackdowns on Iranians abroad, the last major bastion of resistance to the current regime, and is representative of the lack of tolerance for basic human rights in the halls of power around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The journalist, Neda Amin, is a writer for the Times of Israel and had been living for the past three years in exile in Turkey. She had written extensively about Iran, its people and particularly its regime. Several of her opinion pieces, written in Persian and criticising the Supreme Leader, drew the ire of the regime, which has sought her extradition from Istanbul. After hearing of the case, Israeli interior minister Arye Dery spoke of his willingness to allow an Iranian journalist fleeing persecution to enter and stay in Israel.

Her case shows how different the clerical regime is from the West. The values of the Islamic Revolution are diametrically opposite those of all democracies, and the ferociousness with which they attack their own people is abhorrent. Instead of trying to associate with this callous leadership, Western policymakers should be seeking to back opponents of the Supreme Leader and those that seek to overthrow him.

Freedom of speech, like most basic rights, is more a dream than a reality in Iran. According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Iran ranks 165 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, below notorious neighbours like Afghanistan (120), Turkey (155) and Iraq (158). Although freedom of the press was a major reason for the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iran is now considered by RWB to be “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”. Since the Revolution, the media has lost any independence and there are no major outlets that are genuinely able to debate government policy, let alone hold the regime to account.

The regime is desperate to force critics based abroad or in exile into silence. Iranians banished from the Islamic Republic are dangerous to the state – they more than anyone understand what it is like to live under the regime, and can appeal to ordinary Iranians in a language and way that they understand.

Exiled detractors of the clerical establishment have long fought for regime change. The exiled crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, has perhaps been the most effective and vehement opponent of the regime. With backing from Western governments, he could become a more central pillar of the opposition movement, campaigning for an overthrow of the Supreme Leader and a change in the regime.

The benefits for the West would be enormous. A more stable Iran that protects basic human rights and re-enters the international community fully could lead the Middle East into an era of stability and influence others in the region to change their own approach to human rights for the better. Western leaders must recognise this and act accordingly.