Protests in Iran: Characteristics, Causes, and Policy Ramifications

Protests in Iran: Characteristics, Causes, and Policy Ramifications

Masoud Kazemzadeh

The protests that began on Thursday December 28, are the largest such protests since 2009.  By Saturday, they had spread to about 40 cities.  The current protests are very different than those in 2009.

The protests in 2009 began by the reformist members of the ruling fundamentalist oligarchy who were unhappy with the election results that were announced by the regime.  The reformist fundamentalists (what we might call “fundamentalist lite”), believed that they had received more votes than the hardline Ahmadinejad.  The reformist fundamentalists wanted to mobilize the people to put pressure on the hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reverse course and allow their candidate to assume the presidency.  Soon, however, the protests became more complicated.  One group, under the leadership of the reformist fundamentalists, kept the same demands and its slogans were simply asking for Khamenei to allow Mir-Hussein Moussavi to become president.  Another group, without any organized leadership, promoted pro-democracy demands and used slogans such as: “Marg bar Khamenei” [Death to Khamenei], “Marg bar Dictator” [Death to the Dictator], “Marg bar Asl Velayat Faghih” [Death to the Principle of Rule by a Shia Cleric], “Zendanee Siasi Azad Bayad Gardad” [Free Political Prisoners], “Na Ghazeh, Na Lobnan, Janam Faday Iran” [Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, My Life for Iran], and “Esteghlal, Azadi, Jumhuri Irani” [Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic].  The term “Iranian Republic” was used in contradistinction to the term “Islamic Republic,” indicating that their demands were beyond mere reforms within the fundamentalist regime and they wanted a democracy.  Despite tensions among them, nevertheless, both sides cooperated closely against the hardline fundamentalist faction.  The 2009 protesters came largely from the middle classes.  The working classes were, by and large, absent from the protests. 

For the presidential elections in 2013 and 2017, Khamenei allowed all three main fundamentalist factions (reformist, expedient, and hardline) to have approved candidates.  The reformist fundamentalist candidates (Mohammad Reza Aref in 2013 and Eshagh Jahangiri in 2017) withdrew from the race and threw their support for Hassan Rouhani who is the main leader of the expedient faction.  Reformist fundamentalists have become junior partners with the expedient faction both in Rouhani’s cabinet and in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the fundamentalist-only parliament).    

The current protests are different in four major respects from the 2009 protests.  First, the protesters are targeting not only Khamenei but also Rouhani.  One of the main slogans of the current protests are “Marg bar Rouhani” [Death to Rouhani].  Another slogan is “Esteghlal, Azadi, Jumhuri Irani” [Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic].  The protesters are attacking the whole regime including all three factions.  The reformist fundamentalists have condemned the pro-democracy and anti-regime protests. 

Second, the protesters are supporters of various opposition groups such as the Iran National Front (a coalition of liberal democrats and social democrats), monarchists, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, also known as MKO, NCRI, MeK), and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.  In addition to the usual pro-democracy slogan “Independence, Freedom, and Iranian Republic,” in three cities slogans in support of monarchy were also heard. 

Third, and perhaps most significantly, there are large numbers of working class participants in the protests.  One of their slogans is “Marg bar Gerani” [Death to High Prices].  Some of the slogans include words such as “Akhund Sarmaydar” [Capitalist Shia Clerics], and “Dozd” [thief].  What is most interesting is that economic grievances and political grievances are coalescing to make a powerful protest movement.  The protesters blame their economic woes on the astronomical theft by fundamentalist rulers who control most financial institutions and banks.  Unlike the 2009 protests, the current protests have targeted banks and have smashed bank windows.  And like the protests of 2009, the current protests also target police vehicles, and Basij headquarters.   

Fourth, during the 2009 protests slogans condemning the fundamentalist regime’s foreign policy played only a minor role.  As mentioned earlier, one of the slogans were “Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, My Life for Iran.”  Also when the regime was asking the people on the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to shout “Death to America,” the protesters shouted back “Death to Russia.”  During the current protests, however, slogans condemning the regime’s foreign policy are playing very prominent roles.  One of the main slogans of the current protests is “Sorieh ra raha kon, fekri be hale ma kon” [Leave Syria alone, do something for us].  This reflects the recognition that the enormous sums the regime spends in Syria (as well as in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere) are at the cost of the welfare of the Iranian people who suffer poverty, unemployment, and high prices.

Causes of the Protests

There are three main causes for the current protests.  First, the fundamentalist regime is dictatorial, reactionary, extremist, and terrorist.  The overwhelming majority of the Iranian people want a political system that is democratic, modern, moderate, as well as to live in peace with the world and the people in the region.  Therefore, the fundamentalist regime lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of the population.  The people, thus, look for opportunities to express their opposition to the regime. 

Second, for the past four-and-half years, President Rouhani has been making grandiose promises to greatly improve the economic situation, reduce repression, tackle official corruption, and avoid wars.  Rouhani had hugely increased the expectation of the people that such reforms were feasible within the fundamentalist system.  The huge gap between the expectation and reality is fueling the current protests.  The huge windfall from the nuclear deal has gone mostly to fundamentalist rulers through outright theft, budget provisions to the coercive apparatuses (IRGC, Basij), and spent for the regime’s proxies and wars in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Palestine and elsewhere.  The overwhelming majority of the people have seen their own finances decline while the fundamentalist elites are getting grotesquely wealthy.  Although repression has slightly abated under Rouhani in comparison with the period under Ahmadinejad, the regime continues to be terribly repressive and dictatorial.  Moreover, corruption by officials has boomed.  The regime also keeps spending huge amounts for its bellicose adventurism abroad.  Since early November, several prominent figures expressed regret for having voted for Rouhani, which was followed by an avalanche of people on social media expressing their regret as well.  Ali Karimi, Iran’s most beloved soccer star, was one such figure.    

Third, President Trump’s hostile rhetoric against the fundamentalist regime seems to have emboldened the Iranian people.  President Obama’s policy of appeasement of Khamenei had a terribly demoralizing effect on the Iranian people who oppose the fundamentalist regime.  The Iranian people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have an ally in the White House.  This perception has formed due in some measures to the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration.  Also there has been a major change in the Voice of America Persian language satellite television.  During the Obama administration, the VOA’s coverage tended to give a great deal of coverage to the views of those who were close to the expedient and reformist factions of the fundamentalist regime.  During the Obama years, I was one of the few who was repeatedly invited to provide analysis that was critical of Obama’s appeasement policy.  Soon after Trump became president, the VOA greatly increased coverage of various opposition groups particularly the monarchists and the PMOI. 

Ramifications for American Policy Toward Iran

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence wrote excellent tweets supporting the Iranian people.  The State Department spokeswoman also released a well-written statement supporting the Iranian people and condemning the repression of the people by the fundamentalist regime.  Several Republicans in Congress (Senators Tom Cotton, Orrin Hatch, Ted Cruz, and Speaker Paul Ryan, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Congressman Mike Gallagher) also wrote in support of the Iranian people in their tweeter accounts. 

Hillary Clinton has also supported the Iranian protesters.  However, conspicuous by its absence has been support (as of the third day of protests) from Democrats in Congress.  This is surprising because there are Democrats who historically have strongly condemned the fundamentalist regime and supported the Iranian pro-democracy demands.  For example, Senators Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin, and Chuck Schumer, as well as Congressmen Brad Sherman and Elliot Engle.    

Strong bipartisan support for the pro-democracy protests in Iran would have positive ramifications.  First, the people would feel that the world hears them.  This means that their sacrifices would not be in vein.  As more people join protests, that would increase the self-confidence of the people in their strength.  Second, the fundamentalist regime would become aware of the costs of repression.  As more governments around the world and more political parties and political figures express support for democracy in Iran, the costs of repression for the fundamentalist regime goes up. 

It is too early to know the results of the current protests.  The regime may succeed in crushing the current protests as it did the protests in 1981, 1998, 2003, and 2009.  Or it may not.  However, after each mass protest movement, the fundamentalists become a little weaker and mass grievances grow more acute.  In a totalitarian regime, where there is no freedom of expression, free press, free political parties, and free elections, the ruling regime has to base its claim of popular support on the myth of mass support.  In such regimes, the government claims that its has mass support despite lack of freedom and democracy.  Such regimes attribute dissent to a small proportion of the population and accuse them of treason and being agents of foreign powers.  So, when masses of people brave repression and protest on the streets they are undermining the propaganda and the legitimacy of the totalitarian regime. 

At certain junctures in history, large numbers of men and women decide that they rather stand and fight for their rights than live as slaves on their knees.  They may succeed or fail to defeat the forces of repression and tyranny.  These brave men and women in Iran today are literally risking their lives and liberties fighting against one of the most brutal regimes in the world.  At a very minimum, we owe these men and women, our support.

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