Iranians have been protesting their regime since last month. Only in the last few days, however, has the world begun to learn the full scope of the repression they face.
There are the videos posted to social media and aggregated by news sites that show security forces firing on demonstrators. There are statements from leading Iranian opposition figures such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of the leaders of the 2009 uprising who has been under house arrest since 2011. There are headlines reading, "With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Is Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years." There is the report from Amnesty International saying that at least 208 people have been killed.
So it's puzzling that America's European allies chose last weekend to announce that six more countries are joining a bartering system, known as Instex, designed to evade the US sanctions on Iranian oil. Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden announced Saturday they were joining France, Germany and the UK.
"Do they think we don't see what is happening in Iran?" asked Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is closely tracking the unrest. "To push Instex at this moment reveals a remarkable lack of attention to human rights. I hope they come to their senses."
The dissonance of the moment for Europe was captured Monday in a tweet by the UK's ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire. "Surprised by the tone of some reactions to this statement," he wrote. "We continue to express concern about the human rights situation in Iran. But Instex shows we will work to support trade — which benefits all Iranians — as long as the JCPOA continues."
Those last two sentences (the JCPOA is the Iran nuclear agreement, which Europe still honors but which the US does not) amount to the kind of feel-good cliche many Westerners have been using for decades to justify trade not just with Iran but with other repressive regimes. It doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Consider Iran's banking crisis. Corruption and cronyism were causing bank failures as early as 2017 — before President Donald Trump's administration re-imposed the crippling sanctions on Iran's economy. Investment in Iran too often goes to the regime's elites, not those who suffer from its mismanaged and now sanctioned economy.
But corruption is only part of the story. Iran also diverts its wealth to its foreign interventions. The US State Department estimated in 2018 that Iran has spent $18 billion since 2012 in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, including paying the salaries of thousands of non-Iranian militia fighters. Iranians know this, too. A popular slogan among protesters is: "No Gaza, No Lebanon, Our Lives Are for Iran."
It's too soon to say whether the latest protests in Iran are the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. What's clear, however, is that the current government is facing a crisis of legitimacy. Ten years ago, when hundreds of thousands of supporters of Mousavi took to the streets, it was largely the urban, educated classes expressing their fury about a stolen election. Today, the unrest in Iran has spread to the working poor. Even Kurdish parties — which have traditionally pursued their own agenda — are now working with organizers of the national movement.
Mousavi himself captured this crisis in legitimacy with his statement last weekend, comparing the widespread shootings of demonstrators to the 1978 killings that preceded Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. "The murderers of '78 were representatives of a non-religious government and the shooters of 2019 are representatives of a religious regime," Mousavi said. "There the chief commander was the shah and here today is the supreme leader with absolute powers."
Perhaps Europeans believe the supreme leader has more staying power than the shah did. But if history is any guide, Iranians will not soon forget the violence and torment their regime has inflicted on them. Nor will they forget those foreign powers that offered that regime an economic lifeline.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.