What the Iran protests were not


Iran’s most significant protests in almost a decade may have calmed, but anger that fueled the nationwide demonstrations lingers and could erupt again at any time, according to experts.

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, a lecturer in Iranian history at Britain’s University of Manchester, predicted “a very, very testing next few months” for the regime. “On the one hand it has succeeded in preventing these protests getting out of hand and contained them to a great extent and they did not achieve critical mass in terms of numbers,” Randjbar-Daemi said. “However, I do not think the feeling of dissent toward the regime and level of disgust for the political and economic situation has gone away.”

Recent protests in numerous Iranian cities and towns caught the world by surprise, and embarrassed Iran’s government and ruling political establishment, notes Johns Hopkins University’s Vali Nasr. But the expectation that the protests would escalate into a popular uprising and unravel the Islamic Republic did not come to pass. Iran’s rulers could take heart from that, but they cannot avoid the broader debates about the future of the Iranian economy and politics that the protests have set in motion, he writes for The Atlantic:

It is equally important to note what these protests were not. They were not a repeat of a past urban, secular uprising of affluent citizens demanding social and cultural change, freedom of expression, and political participation. And here lies the good news for the Islamic Republic. The most serious threats to the system have traditionally come when Tehran has risen in rebellion—as it did in June 2009 to protest the outcome of the presidential elections that year. At that point, throngs of students and cosmopolitan urbanites formed large crowds that presented an immediate threat to control of the city, and by implication the stability of the ruling order.

A mid-ranking cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was unexpectedly chosen as supreme leader during an emergency closed-door session of the Assembly of Experts in 1989, just days after the death of the founder of Iran’s Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, RFE/RL’s Radio Farda reports:

For the first time, footage of that secret session has emerged, revealing that Khamenei was only given a caretaker role as supreme leader for a one-year period. He is also shown saying he was not qualified for the position and that his selection was unconstitutional. The video leaked on January 8 has not only raised questions about Khamenei’s rise to the most powerful seat in the country but also his current leadership.

“The person who people have accused of poor leadership and have demanded step down, admits himself that his leadership would make people shed tears of blood,” said Shahed Alavi, the U.S.-based Iranian journalist who first shared the video of Khamenei, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Iran’s elites are more fragile than they seem, notes Sanam Vakil, Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.

“The supreme leader continues to hold fast to a decaying vision of the Islamic Republic that has no meaning or value to many of the country’s citizens; the blame for failing to keep the system in balance ultimately falls on his shoulders,” he writes for Foreign Policy. “If there’s anyone who has been forthright about supporting the right of protests, and effective in acknowledging the public’s frustrations, it has been Friday prayer leaders who are ideologically close to the supreme leader and looking to promote their own hard-line populist ties to the people.”

Khamenei believes the West is conducting a “cultural invasion” of Iran, the New York Times reports.

“Western thinkers have time and again said that instead of colonialist expansionism … the best and the least costly way would have been inculcation of thought and culture to the younger generation of countries,” Khamenei said.

Most important of all, Khamenei, whose contrition is more important than anyone else’s, seems by temperament unable to accept any errors. His hubris is one of the central problems in the country, according to Abbas Milani (left, @milaniabbas), the director of Iranian Studies, Stanford University and co-director of Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution:

He controls billions of dollars of assets, has a disproportionate share of power, is unelected and virtually unimpeachable and he is obsessed with a paranoid rhetoric that sees foreign “enemies” behind every failing of the regime he has led for three decades. His unwillingness to accept responsibility and offer words of contrition might leave the increasingly defiant people of Iran no choice but radical change.

The conventional wisdom inside and outside Iran has long held that the lower and working classes in Iran were clients of the state and the core hard-line constituency, Laura Secor notes:

Kevan Harris, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a study of welfare recipients and political affiliation that called this assumption into question. It turns out that loyalty is not so easily bought. Welfare recipients are not more politically predictable than other Iranians. And now it seems that when members of this cohort turn up on Iran’s streets, after years of being told that there is nothing wrong with an economy that can’t keep factory doors open or food on the table, their slogans are more radical than those of the presumptive middle class.

“There has been a long assumption that the so-called base of the Islamic Republic is the shoeless peasant and the religious conservative and the [Iran-Iraq] war veteran family, and I think that era of Iran is not what Iran today is like,” says Harris, author of the 2017 book, “A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran.”

The nature of the protest “is surprising not just to the political elite, which is split and don’t know how to react. It’s also surprising to even the opposition intelligentsia in Iran, which always thought they were leading the charge on issues of political and social change,”. Harris adds.

Iran’s economy was a key driver of the protests that erupted on December 28. Tens of thousands took to the streets to express their frustration with rising prices, unemployment, the gap between rich and poor, and corruption. The 2015 nuclear deal, which included sanctions relief, has not yielded significant benefits for the average Iranian, says USIP’s Iran Primer:

President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that the government must respond to core grievances. “Criticism about all affairs of the country is the right of the people,” he said a cabinet meeting on December 31, 2017. “It is true that steps have been taken, but the decline in people’s purchasing power since five to six years ago has not yet been completely compensated; people have problems and these problems must be solved.”

The regime is engaged in information warfare, says Dr. Haroon Ullah, Chief Strategy Officer at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The author of new book, Digital World War, discusses “There is No Backup Plan: Inside the Information War for Control of Iran,” his piece for VF Hive. Dr. Ullah analyzes the Iranian regime, its response to protests and explains why social media may be out of the Ayatollah’s control. He looks at how Iranian citizens are bypassing the current regime’s attempts at information blackout, as well as its growing fear of social media’s power to disseminate information and its use as an anti-government protest tool.

A key test will be the response of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, says Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation:

Many of their commanders may be loyal to Khamenei, but the rank and file are conscripts who face the same daily struggles as their brethren. Thus, it is no surprise that some Basijis are reported to have burned their membership cards in support of the uprising….The current uprising may not lead to the immediate collapse of the regime, but we are witnessing the death throes of the Islamic Republic. Even if the uprising ends today, it is but one step in a long struggle to achieve a more representative, democratic, and popular government.

Iran spends $16 billion annually to support terrorists and rogue regimes…. says David Adesnik, Director of Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies:

Iran spends more than $16 billion per year supporting foreign “resistance” organizations and clients.
Supporting the Assad regime in Syria is estimated to cost $15 billion per year, including the costs of deploying thousands of Revolutionary Guards and 20,000 Shiite militiamen.
Bankrolling Iraqi security forces, including pro-Iranian militias, may have cost $1 billion per year.
Support for Lebanese Hizbullah is believed to be $800 million, while Iran spends a combined $100 million per year supporting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

Reverberations of the Iran Protests

The protests that began on December 28, 2017 in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, and that spread throughout the nation, appear to be subsiding following mass arrests, the Atlantic Council notes. But the underlying causes – unemployment, high prices, wealth inequality and a repressive political system – remain and are likely to cause more upheaval in the weeks and months ahead.

To discuss these issues and the Iranian government’s responses to the protests so far, please join the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative for a rapid reaction conference call on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. EST. This conversation will feature Chair of the Advisory Board of the Future Iran Initiative, Stuart Eizenstat; Atlantic Council Senior Fellow, Amir Handjani; President of Research Institute on Contemporary Iran, Mohsen Sazegara; Director of the Future Iran Initiative, Barbara Slavin; and Distinguished Ambassadorial Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, Sir Peter Westmacott – just returned from a conference in Tehran.

Dial in Number: 1-866-888-9885 (United States and Canada)

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