Technically speaking we’re not supposed to be visiting one another again until tomorrow, and that’s when we’ll be resuming our regular updates around here. But as you likely know by now there’s something that’s been going on in Iran for the past couple of days. I thought we maybe ought to focus on that before we dive back into the whole pool tomorrow.
I want to preface this by saying that it’s now been four days since a significant protest movement (scenes of which you can see in the video above) gripped multiple towns and cities inside Iran, and we still don’t have a real clear idea what’s going on. When I say “we,” I mean “anybody who isn’t in Iran right now.” When a DC think tank guru tells you that the Iranian regime is about to collapse due to the weight of public opposition to its very nature, you can feel free to discount that analysis. Likewise, when somebody tells you that these protests are definitely the work of foreign agents posing as Iranian citizens intent on advancing a destructive Western agenda, you can feel free to discount that as well. Some of the contours of the protest movement have begun to take a little shape, and there are theories being advanced about their causes and demands, and those are fine. But anybody who tells you that they know what’s going on here is lying to serve an agenda. It might be a noble agenda, but they’re still bullshitting you.
Here’s what we do know: on Thursday, crowds of protesters assembled in several Iranian cities, including Tehran though the largest demonstration seems to have been in Mashhad. It’s not clear who–if anyone–arranged the protests, but the location (Mashhad is a religious city with a large hardline presence) and the slogans (“Death to [President Hassan] Rouhani” being perhaps the best example) strongly suggested a hardliner origin. So did the fact that it took quite a while for the Iranian security establishment to respond to the demonstrations. But that’s speculation.
Over the weekend it became apparent that, even if the original protests were organized by hardliners, things had taken on a life of their own. The movement had spread to more cities and, in Tehran at least, there were reports of posters bearing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s visage being torn down and even burned. Both pro- and anti-government protests continued to break out and, as is all too frequent in these situations, people started getting killed. At least 13 people have been killed so far–one police officer, the rest protesters or bystanders. Various Iranian officials, including Rouhani, have mouthed the standard bromides about respecting protesters rights while their security forces gradually ratchet up the lethality of their response.
Again, it’s still not clear how or why these protests began. These demonstrations have so far been smaller but more widespread than the Green Movement protests after the dubious 2009 Iranian presidential election. But the Green Movement had an obvious immediate grievance–they believed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the election. So far, nobody has even stepped forward to claim leadership of this protest movement, let alone to explain who is actually protesting or to articulate any coherent motive. Additionally, as is quite common in these instances, it’s not clear the degree to which these protests are actually reflective of Iranian public opinion writ large. So any references to “the Iranian people” or “Iranian public opinion” or the like–including the several such references I’m making in this piece–have to be treated skeptically. It would be a mistake to assume that the bulk of Iranian popular will is behind these protesters–though it would also be a mistake to assume that it isn’t. We simply don’t know.
On the other hand, once you quit looking for some immediate event that might have set people off, it’s not like the Iranian people don’t have plenty of things to protest. It’s hard to talk about this when you’re somebody who doesn’t want to feed the worst instincts of the DC foreign policy establishment, but the Iranian government is repressive, arbitrary in the way it renders justice, generally hostile toward minorities, corrupt, increasingly militarized…it’s no picnic. Some of those conditions are the product of external provocation, but others are endemic to the way Iranian politics have developed since 1979. I’ll say a bit more about this below.
The Iranian government is also presiding over an economy that–even with most international sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal–has continued to suck out loud, especially for lower class Iranians. There are many reasons for that. The sanctions took a huge bite out of the economy that is taking time to repair. The Trump administration has done everything in its power to ensure that Iran sees as little benefit from the nuclear deal as possible (which violates the deal, by the way, but I digress). Internally, Iranian corruption and the stifling presence of the Revolutionary Guard in so many sectors of the economy are among the factors that have contributed to slow growth and to the fact that the growth Iran has experienced hasn’t been felt by Iranians who aren’t among the country’s economic elite.
Another factor is the austerity plan that Rouhani has been following since his election in 2013. On this, I recommend Esfandyar Batmanghelidj’s look at the possible economic motivations behind these protests, which we just ran this afternoon at LobeLog:
It is generally overlooked when discussing Iran’s post-sanctions economy that Rouhani has operated an austerity budget since his election in 2013. Some even describe his policies as “neoliberal.” While an imperfect descriptor, his administration’s economic approach does broadly correspond to the neoliberal “Washington consensus,” which seeks economic reform through trade liberalization, privatization, tax reform, and limited public spending, focus on foreign direct investment, among other policies.
Rouhani’s hands have been tied to some extent by the excessively corrupt, faux-populist administration run by Ahmadinejad, which left the country in a very bad economic place even without considering the effect of the sanctions. But the fact is that he’s managed the Iranian economy according to the same economic principles that have caused protests in places like Greece, Spain, German, etc., so the theory that these protests are economic in motivation would, if true, make a lot of sense. The anger caused by austerity may be compounded by the fact that Iranians are supposed to be tightening their belts at home at a time when their government is spending billions of dollars to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The political slogans that have reportedly dominated some of the demonstrations may express more basic economic anger. Just as “Death to America” doesn’t really mean that Iranians want all Americans to die, chants of “Death to Rouhani” or “Death to Khamenei” might not be meant literally.
None of this is to minimize the political dimension of these protests. A country’s economy and its politics are often almost inseparable, and anger over issues like official corruption is economic but it’s also obviously political. But even if the protesters’ motives are entirely political, there’s no evidence that the protests have hit some critical mass whereby the Islamic Republic’s survival is in question. Iran has survived plenty of these protests since 1979 and will likely survive these as well.
At this point about the only thing we American observers can do is to continue to observe and continue to make some educated guesses about what’s motivating these protests and what might come of them. But as I said above, this becomes dicey territory for anybody who wants to, say, express support for the Iranian people or the Iranian working class without sounding like a DC hawk. That’s partly because whenever there are protests against a government the hawks have decided to hate, all those center-right/right-wing hawk types say some right-sounding things about respecting protesters rights and the will of the people, etc. So when left types say the same thing it sounds suspect, like you’re cheerleading for American empire.
Well, fuck that. It’s not siding with the hawks to say that the Iranian people have legitimate grievances against their government. It’s not rooting for war with Iran to say that the Iranian government is repressive, or that its policies are hurting average Iranians. I’m not going to let the fact that hawks are pretending to care about what happens to the Iranian people prevent me from actually caring about what happens to the Iranian people. The difference is that the hawks wouldn’t express support for these same kinds of protests if they were to happen in Riyadh. Or Tel Aviv. Or Washington DC. It’s all a game to those guys, and they’ll use anything they can find to try to win–which, in this case, means getting their war on.
At the same time, if leftists can’t oppose American empire or Washington’s eternally destructive push to Do Something while also acknowledging that many of the governments around the world that are on America’s shit list are themselves quite problematic, then that’s pathetic. You can oppose arming Syrian rebels or putting American soldiers in Syria while still criticizing Bashar al-Assad. You can oppose NATO expansion and American interventions in Ukraine while still acknowledging that Vladimir Putin is a reactionary goon with illegitimate designs on parts of his neighbors’ territories whose intervention in Syria has been bloody in the extreme. You can support the nuclear deal and engagement with Iran, and oppose America’s increasingly horrifying relationship with Saudi Arabia, while also believing that the Iranian people deserve better than the government they have right now. This is basic stuff. It’s not even walking and chewing gum at the same time–it’s walking and walking at the same time. If you can’t do both, consider what that says about your worldview.
At the end of the day, this is an Iranian protest movement involving Iranian citizens and the Iranian political establishment–in other words, it’s about Iran. It’s not about fulfilling Amerca’s foreign policy goals. It’s not about relitigating the nuclear deal. It’s not about Donald Trump vs. Barack Obama. It’s not about anybody’s frustrations with America’s foreign policy. It’s not about America, period. Consider that as you read coverage of this story and digest volumes of pundit opinion pieces about What It All Means. And if you’re in the US government or the DC think tank community, please, just this once, consider shutting the fuck up. Anything you say can and will be used by Iranian authorities to try to discredit the protesters, the folks you all claim to be supporting.
Oh well, too late.
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