Spinning the Iranian protests

by James M. Dorsey

In supporting recent anti-government protests in Iran, both Iranian hardliners and the US State Department may want to be careful what they wish for. Not only are the protests unlikely to spark the kind of change either of the two adversaries may be hoping for, they also are refusing to stick to the different scripts the Trump administration and opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani read into them.

For Iranian hardliners, the joker in the pack is what US President Donald J. Trump decides in January to do with the 2015 international agreement that put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Trump will have to again choose whether to certify Iranian compliance as well as extend the temporary waiver of US sanctions on Iran. In October, Mr. Trump refused to certify and threatened to pull out of the agreement if Congress failed to address the agreement’s perceived shortcomings.

Members of Congress have been trying to draft legislation that would give Mr. Trump a face-saving way of maintaining the agreement by claiming that Iranian compliance ensures includes acceptance of restrictions on the country’s ballistic missile program and support of regional proxies. It was not clear whether Washington’s deeply polarized politics would allow for a meeting of the minds of Republicans and Democrats. Iranian hardliners would be strengthened if Mr. Trump failed to maintain US adherence to the agreement and would likely see it as a US breach of the accord.

In a statement condemning the arrests of protesters, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauer projected the demonstrations as a bid to change Iranian politics. She urged “all nations to support the Iranian people and their demands for basic rights and an end to corruption.” In a reflection of a strand of thinking in Washington that is looking for ways change the regime in Iran, Ms. Nauert quoted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as telling Congress that the Trump administration supports “those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of the government.”

For his part, Mr. Trump tweeted that the “Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching!”

Mr. Trump and Ms. Nauert appeared oblivious to the fact that unlike the 2009 mass protests against alleged fraud in presidential elections, the largest since the 1979 toppling of the Shah that were dubbed a Green revolution and brutally squashed, this month’s demonstrations may have been in part prompted by a hard-line effort to exploit widespread discontent to undermine Mr. Rouhani.

If so, Iranian hardliners may be overestimating their ability to ensure that the protesters in a host of Iranian towns and cities, whose numbers range from several hundred to a few thousand, restrict themselves to taking the government to task on economic policy, particularly price hikes and fraudulent financial schemes that have deprived victims of their savings.

Various of the protests have turned into opposition to the very system hard-liners are seeking to defend by demanding a release of political prisoners and the shouting of slogans some reminiscent of the 2009 demonstrations, like ‘Death to the Dictator,’ ‘Leave Syria Alone, Do Something for Us,’ ‘You Are Using Religion as a Tool, You Have Ruined the People,’ and ‘What a mistake we made, by taking part in the revolution,’ to ‘Reza Shah, Bless Your Soul,’ a reference to the founder of the toppled Pahlavi dynasty.

No doubt, the protests reflect widespread grievances, particularly among the Islamic republic’s working and lower middle classes. Expectations that the benefits of the lifting of crippling international sanctions as part of the nuclear agreement would trickle down have so far been dashed. Many criticized on social media a widely debated new government budgetthat cut social spending but maintained allocations for religious and revolutionary institutions. Many also objected to a hiking of the exit tax that Iranians pay to travel abroad.

The Iranian economy has since the lifting of sanctions emerged from recession, but businesses still suffer a lack of investment while the official unemployment rate has increased by 1.4 percent to 12.7 percent despite economic growth. The government’s policy of allowing Iran’s currency to devalue has fuelled inflation and driven up prices of basic goods like eggs that recently rose by 40 percent.

Nonetheless, the anti-systemic nature of some of the protesters’ slogans speaks to the fact that popular grievances are not purely economic. Many question the government’s investment of billions of dollars in struggles in places like Syria and Yemen as part of its bid to enhance the Islamic republic’s regional position and compete with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance – a policy supported by the hardliners. They feel that the funds could be better employed to improve the economy.

The first protests in the latest round of demonstrations erupted on Friday in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, that is home to conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who was Mr. Rouhani’s main challenger in last May’s presidential election. Mashhad is also home to Mr. Raisi’s father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a hard-line Friday prayer leader and former prosecutor general and an opponent of Mr. Rouhani’s cautious loosening of strict social mores and encouragement of greater cultural space.

Mr. Alamolhoda charged that the anti-regime slogans came from a small group that was trying to disrupt the protest. The protests erupted almost to the day on the eighth anniversary of the Green Revolution. The latest round built on weeks of  smaller protestsfocused on issues ranging from unpaid wages to bank fraud and embezzlement to environmental issues that appeared to have no connection to any one political group in Iran.

Protesters in Mashhad took to the streets a day after the police chief in the capital Tehran announced that women would no longer be detained or prosecuted for failing to observe strict dress codes imposed immediately after the 1979 revolution. The police chief said violators of the code would receive counselling instead. Younger, more liberal women have long been pushing the envelope on rules that obliged them to cover their hair and wear long, loose garments.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the policy change. Domestic pressure was certainly one driver, but so may have been a desire to compete with Saudi Arabia whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has grabbed headlines with lifting social and cultural restrictions with measures like a lifting of the ban on women’s driving and creating an entertainment sector.

Iranian-American poet and journalist Roya Hakakian argued in a recent op-ed that Iranian and Saudi women had benefited from “competition between the two regimes to earn the mantle of the modern moderate Islamic alternative.”

A litmus test of Ms. Hakakian’s assertion may be whether Iran follows Saudi Arabia in lifting a ban on women attending male sporting events. An Iranian sports scholar said in a private exchange with this writer that individual women had slipped into soccer matches in Tehran in recent days dressed up as men. A female protester took off her hijab in one of the recent demonstrations in protest against the dress codes.

The Trump administration’s emphasis on the anti-systemic nature of some of the protests and the hardliners loss of control of demonstrations that they allegedly hoped would focus solely on squeezing Mr. Rouhani takes on added significance with the fate of the nuclear accord hanging in the balance. Hardliners have long opposed the deal because it restricts Iran’s military capability, threatens the vested interests of the Revolutionary Guards and other hardliners, and has not produced expected economic benefits.

The anti-government protests may well constitute a hard-line effort to set the stage for a potential confrontation with the US. If so, protesters have so far not followed the script. The protests, while spreading across the country, have failed to mushroom into truly mass demonstrations and could well turn as much on the hardliners as they target Mr. Rouhani.

By the same token, a US pull-out from the nuclear agreement could fuel increasing nationalist sentiment in Iran that could prove to be a double-edged sword, particularly for Iranian hardliners.

Revolutionary Guard media personnel gathered in 2011 to discuss the waning appeal to Iranian youth of the hard-liners’ religious rhetoric and opted for nationalism as a way of bridging the gaps in society that had become evident in the 2009 protests.

“The youngest generation in our country doesn’t understand our religious language anymore. We’re wasting our time with the things we make. They don’t care about it. That’s why so many of them were in the streets protesting against our system,” a Guards captain told the gathering.

If the protests in recent days prove anything, it is that the nationalism fostered by the Guards and other arms of the government could well take off in unintended directions. That may unintentionally serve US policy goals. It could also spark a much harsher crackdown and a solidifying of hard-line power.

Photo: Protesters in Kermanshah, Iran, on December 29 2017 (Wikimedia)

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North AfricaRepublished, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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  1. @Don, you’re right and thus far Rouhani has resisted his oil minister’s recommendation of doubling the gasoline price but he has incorporated the price increase in his 2018 (1397 their calendar year) by 50%. But given the current situation I suspect that price increase won’t happen soon! FYI, the average income in Iran is $470/Mo and for the low income is close to $160/Mo! Currently price of gasoline is about $1.00/gal Or 4,200 Tomans! Unfortunately all commodities are priced based on $US but their income is based on Tomans!
    Your question about the Sings in English is also right and it is about their belief that their message must be seen and understood by the outsiders regardless of the accuracy which is sad because many college students speak pretty good English but I‘m not sure of writing in English! The hardliners are calming that the CIA and Mossad are behind these protests but another voice in Iran is claiming that the hardliners are behind these protests in order to undermine Rouhani and perhaps to forcing him into resignation! The hardliners loved to get rid of JCPOA more so than Trump!

  2. Bernard at Moon of Alabama has a heavily hyperlinked article up that lays out reasonable grounds for suspecting that this is the beginning of a U.S.-instigated “color revolution.” I believe it’s too early to tell yet, but there do seem to be too many simultaneous relevant events happening in too many places to be due purely to homegrown resistance. It’s a situation that bears close observation.

    Bear in mind that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program since 2007, according to Mossad and to the consensus positions of all U.S. intelligence agencies. That is the result of fatwahs against nuclear weaponizing issued by both the former and present Supreme Leaders on moral grounds. But despite such factors, the Iranian Nukes Myth is what comes out of both the Trump Administration and the Zionists in the U.S. and in Israel.

    Given that situation and the fact that the Supreme Leader has endorsed the JCPOA, I don’t see a purported Iranian hardliner desire for a nuclear weapons program as anything that weighs heavily. The Iranian Nukes Myth is still a myth.

    What the Zionists want is for the U.S. to go to war against Iran. And that is what the Iranian Nukes Myth has been about from the very beginning.

  3. A well written commentary, such as that of above, can and it appears to have all of its facts wrong. Gas prices, economic hardships, and low wages are not particular difficulties of just the Iranian people, nor are they anything new to them. Iranian people are at their ends with the murderous ( notice I spelled it correctly because I am an America educator and did not learn it on the Internet like most Iranian youth do) regime and its satanic mullah preachers. They are pouring out in thousands to protest the oppressive policies of a pathetic religious government who has been killing, raping, and torturing their children for the past 38 years, while people like you have been sitting in their offices, sipping on your Scotch, quoting stats from the World Bank, and wondering why they can’t spell simple words correctly. Therefore, they must be Israeli agents who are trying to antagonize their nemesis. They are making signs in poor English, because that is all they know. They are doing it to show their disgust at their own leaders while capturing the attention of the world. This uprising did not start three nights ago, nor is it going away until this pathetic excuse for humanity and its murderous leaders are gone from the face of this earth no matter how long that may be.

  4. What’s false in the article: People keep writing Iran’s economy emerged out of recession after the nuclear deal. According to IMF, Iran’s economy emerged from recession in August of 2013. That is the month Rohani took oath of office for the first time and hadn’t even start to form a cabinet.

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