Since December 28, 2017, thousands of Iranians have been demonstrating across the country against the Islamic regime and its inability to improve the domestic economic situation and also against the large-scale proxy-wars and aid it provides to foreign countries and terrorist organizations at the Iranian people’s expense.
These are the most widespread demonstrations in Iran since the suppression of the protests that followed Ahmadinejad’s reelection as president in 2009. The demonstrations, which focused on the cost of living, declining subsidies, rising unemployment (officially 12 percent but actually much higher), and corruption, began in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, and spread to other major cities and even to the capital, Tehran, as well as the holy city of Qom with its religious seminaries. A demonstration was also held at the University of Tehran on December 30, 2017, in which students clashed with riot police. Some demonstrators were arrested and taken to the notorious Evin Prison.
Since the 2009 demonstrations, the number of smartphones in Iran has shot up into the tens of millions, and many protest videos have gone viral. After consecutive days of violent unrest, the regime is trying to suppress digital communications in a bid to crash the widening protest. The regime has filtered and blocked key social networks Twitter, Instagram, telegram and restricted internet access and coverage on mobile phones.
One picture sent out on the social networks has become iconic: a woman is seen defying the security forces and waving her head covering on a stick.1
The Iranian regime first tried to contain the protest in Mashhad and prevent it from spreading by cutting off internet access and disrupting the satellite broadcasts of major news channels such as the BBC and the VOA. But scores of videos from the flashpoints that multiplied across Iran were sent out on the social networks.
The demonstrators at these flashpoints cried out slogans against the clerics such as: “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!” “Shame on you clerics, let go of our country!” “Death to the dictator!” (Supreme Leader Khamenei) “Death to (President) Rouhani!” “Death to Hizbullah!” They also denounced Iran’s ongoing and expensive involvement in various Middle Eastern conflicts to the detriment of the Iranian people: “Forget about Syria, think about us!” “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran!” In Shiraz, demonstrators tore up a picture of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, who stands behind the vast military aid Iran is dispensing to countries and terror organizations across the Middle East.2
Recently Yahye Sinwar, leader of Hamas in Gaza, acknowledged that Soleimani had contacted him and promised him to give Hamas all it needs to “defend Jerusalem” with no strings attached. Sinwar told the Al Mayadeen network that in 2012 he had met with Soleimani and been impressed by his deep commitment to Palestine and Jerusalem. A spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad also said Iran had provided the organization with all of its capabilities.3
Spontaneous or Organized Demonstrations?
Although it is not clear at this point who is behind the demonstrations, the fact that they have “spontaneously” erupted at a number of locations suggests a guiding hand that has organized them. So far, the color green, which characterized the 2009 protests, has not stood out; the leaders of those protests, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since 2011. For the time being, the Iranian regime’s response has been confused. The content of the demonstrators’ complaints cuts across the political camps, and their protest is directed at both the Supreme Leader and President Rouhani as the head of the executive branch. The latter is blamed for his failed economic policy and inability to translate the nuclear deal (JCPOA) into economic gains that would alter the gloomy economic reality of the Iranian citizen.
The Friday sermons in Iran, which are coordinated with the Supreme Leader’s office, also gave confusing messages – in favor of the protests but against taking to the streets. Ahmad Alamolhoda, Friday prayer leader in Mashhad where the first protest broke out, said that demanding better living conditions was “right” but hurried to warn that “one must not take to the streets every time someone calls to do so…. The security of the country and issues that affect our lives must not become a tool that helps our enemies triumph.” He called the denunciations of Iran’s involvement in Syria “irresponsible” and said they played into the hands of the Mujahideen Khalq resistance group.4
Obama’s Poor Legacy
Under President Barack Obama, the United States ignored the 2009 wave of protests in the wake of the Iranian presidential elections. The current U.S. president, however, expressed support for the protesters, saying that the Iranian regime fears the Iranian people and that “oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. The world is watching!”5
Obama, for his part (along with most of the European countries), ignored the outcry of the Iranian people in 2009, the systematic human rights violations in Iran in the ensuing years, and Hizbullah’s involvement in the United States’ backyard with the drug cartels that financed the group’s activity. The Administration did not want to jeopardize the “historic legacy” – the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 at any price.6
Neda Agha-Soltan, philosophy student, was shot dead during the 2009 Iranian election protests. She was murdered by the Basij, IRGC’s voluntary arm. Her death was captured on video and she became an icon in the struggle of Iranian protesters against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Her martyrdom is being recalled by some of today’s protestors in #RememberNada messages on social media.
Apart from the widespread protests, the regime had planned pro-government demonstrations of support beforehand. These were intended to mark the suppression of the 2009 protests against Ahmadinejad’s reelection, but the demonstration took on added significance when the anti-regime protests began a day earlier. The regime’s demonstrators called to put Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi on trial.
After the 2009 wave of protests, the Iranian regime took wide-ranging preventive actions. Apart from the violent suppression of the rallies themselves, these included the arrests of main activists of the Green Movement (some of them are still arrested), the closing of reformist media outlets, arrests of journalists, bloggers, and others, a prohibition on mentioning the names of the Green Movement’s leaders in the media, and continuing human rights violations.
In Rafsanjani’s Absence
The death of Ayatollah Rafsanjani in January 2017 will probably affect the current wave of protests. Rafsanjani, one of the instigators of the Islamic Revolution and a compatriot of Khomeini, was a staunch opponent of the Revolutionary Guard’s increased involvement in the economy and the administration of the country. In 2009, after he called for the release of the detainees and a free media, and expressed support for the Green revolution, he was pushed to the side-lines. Rafsanjani was a sort of intergenerational mediator in Iran, and even though he lost power over the years (in 2011 he was not elected to the Assembly of Experts), he was able to bridge the chasm between the heads of the regime and the young generation and the middle classes, which had lost power and influence with the rise of the Revolutionary Guard.
In the absence of such a mediator and as the demonstrations continue, the Iranian regime will not hesitate to subject them to the Basij – the volunteer paramilitary force of the Revolutionary Guard known for its brutal, repressive tactics – and to resort to mass arrests as it did since 2009.
A Perfect Storm?
Even if the Iranian regime succeeds in suppressing the current wave of protest, the next wave is already in the making. The sweeping protest in 2009, which was brutally suppressed, continued to stir beneath the surface and erupted now. The Iranian people yearn for a long-awaited improvement of their living conditions, and the current Iranian regime cannot meet their demands with its adventurous foreign policy and export of the revolution.
Geographically, the current protest wave is more widespread than that of 2009, but it is not enough to guarantee that it will succeed in overthrowing or even change the regime, which has not hesitated so far to crush the protest, as the president and other spokesmen have already warned.
In recent years, the Revolutionary Guards has been implementing a tough and ambitious strategy to take over key centers of power in Iran such as the security forces (at the expense of the army “Artesh“), the economy, and large parts of the government, pushing out other traditional strata. The Guards will not give up any power without a violent struggle to preserve their expanded share.
The positions taken by the American administration will be of great importance if the administration does not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. The United States should limit its support to the demonstrators by exerting international pressure on the Iranian regime to avoid violent suppression of the protest.
The current wave of protests has shown once again that the real threat to the stability of the religious regime in Iran is the Iranian people who have already proven in the past that they can topple a regime that abandons and ignores their needs.
Are we witnessing the beginning of a perfect storm in Iran? The groups participating in the demonstrations are diverse and go beyond the student sector that characterized the protest in 2009. This may indicate wide common denominators – economic, political, and religious – crossing camps within the Iranian people. This is the same broad coalition that enabled the (Islamic) revolution in the late 1970s.
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2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lo4yLLJZkLY; https://twitter.com/majidyar/status/947192078274002944