The Islamic Republic’s volte face on the fate of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 has tempted Iran-watchers to speculate that the tragedy could be a “Chernobyl moment” for the regime in Tehran. Implicit in this analogy is the hope that the shooting down of the jetliner foreshadows the end of the theocratic state, just as the disaster in the outskirts of Pripyat 33 years ago foreshadowed the end of the Soviet Union.
The temptation to make the comparison is understandable — and not only because the recent award-winning HBO/Sky miniseries has refreshed minds about the nuclear catastrophe and reminded us about how it connects to the meltdown of the Communist empire.
There are some obvious parallels. The sequence of Tehran’s responses to the downing of Flight 752 was similar to that of Moscow’s after the explosion in Chernobyl: denial, crude attempts at a cover-up, exposure by foreign governments, followed by a grudging acknowledgment — and finally an apology, laden with caveats and blame-shifting.
There are parallels, too, in the political backdrops to both events: As was the USSR, the Islamic Republic is isolated, its economy in shambles. The regime has long since cut loose from its ideological moorings; it has little to offer a sullen populace but old bromides about American perfidy. The widespread street protests across Iran over the weekend showed that Iranians aren’t persuaded by this kind of stale propaganda any more than the citizens of the Soviet Union were in 1986.
Alas, the similarities end there. There is no Mikhail Gorbachev in Tehran to recognize the hollowness of the regime and tap popular discontent to unleash the political reforms that would, three years after Chernobyl, close the Soviet era. Hopes that President Hassan Rouhani would be “Iran’s Gorbachev” were always hopelessly misplaced, not least because he has no real power.
The man who does, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is as far removed from Gorbachev as it is possible to imagine in modern times. Instead, he is fully devoted to preserving his office, and the theocratic underpinnings of the Islamic Republic. He has no qualms about slaughtering hundreds of Iranians — and hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen — to safeguard these ends.
He also enjoys the unshaking loyalty of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij irregulars within Iran, and a network of terrorist groups and proxy militias throughout the Middle East. Might the tragedy of Flight 752 soften the hearts of those who kill and maim at Khamenei’s pleasure? Chance would be a fine thing.
But the resumption of anti-regime protests suggests that thousands of fearless Iranians are willing to take that chance — the bravest of them have taken to the streets with no expectation of any softening. I have not yet seen or heard, in the many videos from the protests that are circulating on social-media platforms, any reference to Chernobyl. Adept at circumventing the regime’s digital blocks against Western TV programming, many Iranians have doubtless seen the TV series. Ironically, one of Rouhani’s advisers is an avid fan.
In truth, Iranians don’t need far-flung foreign comparisons: Their own history is replete with episodes analogous to their current state of affairs. At least one comes close, in immediate impact, to the Flight 752 downing, and perhaps eventually in augury.
On the night of Aug. 18, 1978, a fire broke out at a cinema in Abadan, close to the border with Iraq. The conflagration claimed anywhere from 420-470 lives, and it was quickly clear that the fire was no accident. The government of the Shah, already feeling the effects of widespread popular discontent, blamed Marxist terrorists.
The opposition, led by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, blamed the Shah’s much-feared intelligence agency. The movie being screened, “The Deer,” was a thinly-veiled critique of the economic distress felt by most Iranians, and the widespread corruption of the Shah’s government. Years would pass before the truth of the burning of Cinema Rex came to light: The arsonists had been Khomeini loyalists, inspired by the cleric’s contempt for cinema as an instrument of Western decadence. It is now acknowledged as one of the deadliest acts of terrorism ever.
But in the immediate aftermath of the fire, Iranians widely blamed the Shah’s regime, and Cinema Rex became a rallying cry for nationwide protests. In the months that followed, these grew in size and frequency, leading eventually to the unrest that forced the Shah to flee — and ushered in the Islamic Republic.
The tragedy of Flight 752 has already rallied Iranian discontent, an effect that the widespread use of social media and cellphone videos will surely amplify. Such tools were unavailable to anti-Shah protesters in 1978: The nearest analogs were cassette tapes of Khomeini’s calls for revolution.
As Khomeini’s successor, Khamenei is keenly aware of this history, and will likely move ruthlessly to stamp out the protests, as he has previous ones. Once again, the regime is in the crosshairs of its own people, even as the killing of Qassem Soleimani, its most effective enforcer, has deprived it of a mythical hero. Even if the downing of a civilian airliner doesn’t turn out to be an exact replay of the Cinema Rex blaze, much less Chernobyl, it is yet another telling blow against Khamenei and a regime bankrupt in every respect. -Bloomberg