The protests in Iran could change everything – but what will the Vatican do?

Pope Francis and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Getty Images)

The year of Our Lord 2018 could be the year in which we see significant change. As I write this, there is ferment in Iran. Thanks to rising prices and unemployment, there are nightly demonstrations against the regime, and, significantly, against the regime’s aggressive foreign policy. People in Iran are justifiably angry that their government is spending millions on proxy wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, while neglecting their own people.

There is no guarantee that the regime will collapse or change, but when the regime does finally crumble, it is demonstrations like these which will mark its end. If the regime were to change – and there have been false dawns before now – this would mean, perhaps, change in Syria, Yemen and Iraq too, as well as some sort of reaction from the arch-rival Saudi Arabia. A ‘liberal’ Iran would be a good ally for the West, which would leave Saudi Arabia, our current ally, in a difficult position.

I can well remember, as a spellbound teenager, watching the nightly news during the period that saw the overthrow of the Shah and the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran with the attendant Islamic revolution. Though perhaps we did not realise it, that revolution changed everything. From then on it because fashionable, indeed in certain circles de rigeuer, to shout “Death to America!” not just in the mosques of Iran after Friday prayers, but in all leftwing circles. The Islamic Revolution was music to the ears of all those who hated America and saw her as the Great Satan. It made demonising the United States respectable and reinforced the myth that America was responsible for all the world’s woes. This is what so many still pretend to believe, while at the same time being deeply envious of America’s success. They are nothing if not conflicted.

Since the events of 1979, America and her allies have been on the back foot in the greater Middle East, hated by Iran and her proxies, and in an uncomfortable alliance with the unpalatable regime of Saudi Arabia. It has not been coherent, and it has not been ethical. But if Iran abandons the baggage of 1979 and becomes a normal country, then the whole landscape of the Middle East will change. Paradoxically, all those who accuse America of interference in the region may well find that America will have less of a role to play, if Iran makes the change to true democracy.

Change in Iran would be bad news for the Assad regime in Syria, as well as for the more militant Shia in Iraq. It would also be bad news for Saudi Arabia whose propaganda relies so much on the Shia bogeyman. As for our own lefties, goodness knows what they will make of it. They have yet to get their heads around the idea that things in Iran may be changing.

While the Iranian situation may be embarrassing for some at home, what will the Vatican make of it? The Vatican has long had good relations with Iran, and these have been warming of late. One could see this as part of a regrettable trend in Vatican diplomacy, which seems too inclined to play softball with various authoritarian regimes such as Venezuela, Russia and China, while overlooking the claims of their opponents. Of course, Iran does practice religious pluralism of a sort, and by and large Christians are not molested in the country.

The Vatican may have been cultivating Iran in the hope of influencing Iranian policy in Syria and elsewhere. But it may also be right to see the Vatican’s relations with Iran as something of a long-term project, aimed at the day when Iran sheds the worst of the 1979 heritage. If Iran changes for the better, the Holy See, as a longstanding friend, stands to be in a good position.

It is interesting to note that the current protests are aimed at an out of touch regime which is perceived as deeply corrupt. Back in 1978-9, people were demonstrating about exactly the same thing. What brought down the Shah was the explosion in oil prices in the mid-seventies and the attendant metastasisation of corruption. What broke the loyalty of his core supporters was the change from “Ten per cent for the Palace” to “Fifteen per cent for the Palace”. The person behind most of the extortion was said to be his twin sister, Princess Ashraf, who was deeply unpopular. Forty years on, and little has changed, for the perception remains that those in power in Iran have robbed the country blind, laundering their ill-gotten gains through various Gulf states.

What Iran desperately needs is honest and transparent government that its people can believe in and trust. It is not that much to ask for. One hopes that the Vatican will make it clear that this is what it wants too for the people of Iran, and that our own government will do the same. Morality should always trump other considerations. Moreover, this might be one of those moments when the moral course – supporting change in Iran – also makes eminent practical sense too.