Will the Iranian Protests Unseat the Islamist Regime?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley helped spread the message of the Iranian protesters by reading out many of the slogans/chants translated into English. Unfortunately, but predictably, both the Russians and the Western Europeans distanced themselves from the American stance, preferring to depict the protests as a purely domestic Iranian affair. For the Kremlin, the Moscow-Tehran axis (similar to its alliances with other anti-American regimes throughout the world) is a way to neutralize U.S. influence and sabotage American foreign policy goals.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna l January 23, 2018

Are anti-government protests the harbinger of a major political revolt that will ultimately overthrow the Islamist regime of the mullahs, thereby overturning the Islamic Revolution of 1979? It is too early to tell, although the demonstrations certainly have the potential to turn into a much larger movement to bring down the system that Khomeini put in place almost four decades ago. That the level of popular anger is reaching – or perhaps has already reached – boiling point seems undeniable. However, the regime and its enforcers are also willing to kill, beat, and torture their own people into submission, as they did in 2009, and as they have been doing already. Thus, the protestors will undoubtedly need a great deal of Western – primarily American – encouragement and support.

Anti-regime protests initially broke out on Thursday, December 28, after which they spread to numerous cities and even small towns and villages throughout Iran. At the time of this writing it is difficult to tell exactly what is occurring in Iran. On the one hand, the regime claims that it has suppressed the “sedition.” There is also a large riot police/Revolutionary Guard presence in the cities. On the other hand, new videos of street demonstrations in Iran continue to surface online.
Hundreds or even thousands of people – 3,700, according to one “Iranian reformist lawmaker” – have been arrested for participating in the protests. At least 21 Iranians have also been killed, a number to which one must undoubtedly add arrested protesters such as 22-year-old Sina Qanbari, whom the authorities claimed committed suicide in prison (we should remember that the Soviets and other brutal communist regimes frequently claimed that individuals they murdered in prison supposedly killed themselves).

It is noteworthy that while the protests originated in the northeastern city of Mashhad – the site of the Imam Reza shrine and a bastion of the regime’s hardliners – their mood and tone was decisively and unequivocally anti-regime. It is clear that the demonstrators were equally angry at both of the factions that supposedly make up the Islamist regime: the so-called moderates/reformists and the conservatives/hardliners. Chants heard throughout Iran included “death to Khamenei” and “death to Rohani.” This is one of the major and most important differences between the 2017-2018 rising and the suppressed 2009 “Green Revolution.”

In 2009, many (perhaps most) of the Iranians protesting against a presidential election they saw as rigged in favor of the hardliners Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supported his opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as a lesser evil. At this point, it seems that Iranian protesters are fed up with all of the factions and coteries within a hated and despised regime. After all, given that the country is heading in essentially the same direction, regardless of whether “reformists” or hardliners happen to be in power, how can one blame the man or woman in the Iranian street from seeing whatever divisions and conflicts exist within the regime as a misleading game of good cop-bad cop intended to both fool Iranians and dupe Westerners.

The main spark of the current protests is no doubt economic. The Islamic Republic’s economy – in spite of the regime’s hopes placed in the 2015 nuclear deal and subsequent sanctions relief (not to mention the delivery of pallets of cash courtesy of President Obama) – is in dire straits and the people are suffering. Low wages and high inflation are hurting everyone but the super-rich (who are often connected to the regime in some way or a part of it), and the young are, in addition, heavily hit by unemployment.

Yet, it would be a serious misunderstanding to attribute the protests solely to economics (as the British left-wing Guardian has recently done). It is not at all “foolish” to view the demonstrations as a “cry for freedom.” The protesters are indeed tired of the regime’s repressiveness and brutality and the young in particular demand more freedom (this is one the main reasons why young Iranians who can afford it travel to neighboring places like Dubai, Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey to party and experience greater personal liberty). Many (probably most) young Iranian women also oppose compulsory hijab laws and risk repression by openly participating in “White Wednesdays.

A populist and anti-Islamist version of nationalism is also a powerful driving force fueling the protesters and their tenacity and assertiveness in the face of great danger. Demonstrators oppose the regime’s funneling of vast sums to places like Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere while ordinary people back home struggle and fall into poverty. Hence, such slogans as “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead,” and “Forget about Gaza and Lebanon; I’ll sacrifice my life for Iran.” Other slogans include “we don’t want an Islamic Republic” and voiced nostalgia for the monarchy, Reza Shah in particular.

Unlike in 2009, the U.S. response to the protests and attempted regime crack-down has been strong, determined, and unequivocal. President Trump expressed his support by Tweeting (on different occasions):

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, utilized the venue that the international organization provides to support the Iranian protesters as well. While speaking on Iran, Haley helped spread the message of the protesters by reading out many of the slogans/chants (translated into English). At Haley’s request, the UN Security Council also held an emergency meeting devoted to the protests in Iran on Friday, January 5. During her speech, she pointed out that “Human rights are not the gift of governments, they are the inalienable rights of the people themselves,” and that “the Iranian regime is now on notice, the world will be watching what you do.”

Unfortunately, but predictably, both the Russians and the Western Europeans distanced themselves from the American stance, preferring to depict the protests as a purely domestic Iranian affair. For the Kremlin, the Moscow-Tehran axis (similar to its alliances with other anti-American regimes throughout the world) is a way to neutralize U.S. influence and sabotage American foreign policy goals. For the Europeans, appeasing the Islamist regime in Tehran is merely about business opportunities. As one Soviet-era dissident argued in the case of Macron, France is committing a similar error to the West’s attempts to appease Moscow during détente.

In addition to verbal support, the Trump administration also slapped new sanctions on five “Iran-based entities subordinate to a key element of Iran’s ballistic missile program.” The President also had the option to refuse to extend sanctions relief under the 2015 nuclear agreement to put additional pressure on the Islamic Republic (President Trump ultimately chose to extend the nuclear deal and sanctions relief while warning Tehran that this was the last time he was doing so). In addition, as one author, who offered additional suggestions (including reinstating all sanctions, cutting ties with the PLO, and cyber/media warfare), pointed out: the U.S. must “strike while the iron is hot.” It is clear that to keep up the protests the demonstrators also need access to the Internet and such messenger apps as Telegram, which the regime has blocked.

Acting rapidly and decisively may help bring Iran to the tipping point. As one analyst argues, “Iran today resembles the USSR in its final days.” Thus, even if the regime manages to ultimately crush this round of demonstrations, economic problems and popular discontent will remain. The regime has few solutions left to offer, except for violence and propaganda, and it is evident that the question is not if it will be ousted but rather when.

Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.