With the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran as its main constituent group, the NCRI is able to draw upon a far-reaching intelligence network inside Iran, which was notably used in the first public disclosures of essential information about the Iranian nuclear program. Meanwhile, the credibility of Tehran’s declaration of an end to protests is arguably diminished by the fact that similar declarations had already been made days earlier, when demonstrations were proceeding in full force.
At the time of the regime’s earlier statements, the IRGC also sought to downplay the size of the protests, claiming that only 15,000 people had participated across the country. By Thursday, however, officials expanded this number to 42,000, according to NBC News. But this is almost certainly a very low estimate as well, considering that the protests started in Iran’s second most populous city of Mashhad and then expanded to include upwards of 80 localities.
The regime’s narrative about the size of the protests is also arguably undermined by the latest information about the crackdown carried out by the IRGC and Iranian security forces. The regime itself has admitted to 3,700 arrests, despite having previously acknowledged only a few hundred. The NCRI reports that even the higher figure is less than half of the number of arrests that can be confirmed through independent analysis.
To back up this claim, the resistance group pointed to the local arrest figures for a number of Iranian towns and cities. In several of these, well over 100 arrests have been acknowledged, while dozens of people have been arrested in comparatively small towns. Extrapolating from these figures to the nationwide scale of the protests, it is easy to conclude that the regime’s estimates remain understated.
This perspective is perhaps further justified by the impulse among some hardline Iranian authorities to offer explanations for the protests which downplay their popular roots. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has famously blamed the United States and other foreign enemies for orchestrating and directing the demonstrations. He also paired this with virtually unprecedented attribution of domestic activities to the PMOI, a resistance organization that the regime has tended to disregard as insignificant and lacking in popular appeal.
As Iran’s own Tasnim News Agency reported on Thursday, Guardian Council Secretary Ahmad Jannati expanded upon Khamenei’s narrative by suggesting that committed opponents of the clerical regime had initiated the protest, after which thousands of other participants were “deceived” into participation. He did not elaborate other than by saying people had been won over by organizers’ slogans without realizing that they were protesting against the government itself. Khamenei also referenced certain slogans in his speech about the protests on January 9, attributing them directly to the PMOI and implying they were the product of months of planning.
But even as these two clerical leaders were refining a narrative that blamed the US and the PMOI without admitting of popular sympathy for either, Newsy was reporting that Iranian leaders simply could not agree about the causes of the demonstrations. This was made clear by President Hassan Rouhani’s admission last week that citizens had social and political demands for the government, in addition to the economic demands that most other authorities had exclusively focused on before he made his remarks.
There is little dispute about the economic roots of the protests, although opinions vary somewhat about their importance to the overall movement, which came to include slogans such as “death to Rouhani” and “death to the dictator,” in reference to Khamenei. Inequality.org emphasized Iran’s entrenched wealth disparities in an article about the protests on Thursday. Specifically, it called attention to the fact that while the fortunes of powerful Iranian institutions improved in the wake of sanctions relief under the 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers, the people’s perceptions of the economic health of the nation actually declined.
The same article notes that the budget for the forthcoming Iranian year, which was announced shortly before the outbreak of unrest, was a major spark for the demonstrations. Of particular issue was that budget’s increase in funding for the military and the IRGC, a significant portion of which can be expected to be earmarked for foreign interventions by the IRGC’s Quds Force. That foreign special operations force presently remains heavily involved in the Syrian Civil War as well as supporting proxy forces in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Global Voices also called attention to this budget in the context of the protests, noting that the amount of funding for the Quds Force was not actually disclosed. The piece declares that for reasons that include but are not limited to the wasteful expenditure of government funds, Tehran’s foreign policy is a particular target of the public’s anger. Meanwhile, the interconnectedness of this issue and the poor economic indicators for ordinary people leads Global Voices to conclude that addressing the economic roots of the protests will likely require the regime to compromise on its foreign policy goals.
But critics of the regime, including the NCRI, believe that it is fundamentally incapable of such compromise. And this underscores another familiar observation about the protests: that they are likely to resurge even if regime authorities are correct about the recent bout of unrest being at an end. NBC quoted Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution as saying the demonstrations constitute “one of the most serious crises Iran has faced in the past 25 years” and a sign that “Iranians are willing to take profound risks to challenge the regime directly in a way we have not seen in years.”
These sorts of observations have led many commentators to draw conclusions similar to that of the Global Voices article, regarding the need for the regime to compromise with protesters or else risk overthrow. It is perhaps in response to this perspective that so many Iranian officials have demonstrated an impulse to moderate their public response to the recent unrest. In addition to making a concerted effort to downplay the number of arrests and other indicators of a widespread crackdown, these officials have also made unusual statements about the right of the people to voice their grievances, provided that they do not disrupt public order or call for regime change.
An article called attention to the officials’ cautious tone in an analysis of the protests on Wednesday, but it concluded that this is not indicative of a more compassionate approach to public dissent. “Rather, the government has become smarter in managing such crises,” the article explained. Meanwhile, it has become no more capable of managing the business of government or addressing the people’s grievances, which it finds to be manifold.
The article suggests that the recent unrest was a spontaneous expression of outrage about issues that often differed from one locality to another. The regime’s early emphasis on the economic roots of the protests cannot explain everything, according to this line of thinking, which also underscores the comprehensive changes that the government would have to undertake in order to prevent the outbreak of more of the same.
As many observers are clearly waiting for the resurgence of protests that may or may not have been effectively suppressed for the time being, another question lingers alongside questions about the exact motives and demands of the movement. That is the question of what sort of action the international community should take in the period between mass demonstrations.
In the first place, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has unsurprisingly called upon “the Security Council and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the European Union and the member states, and the US government, as well as all human rights organizations” to condemn Tehran for recent human rights abuses against protesters and to take steps that might prevent more of the same.
On the broader topic of how to respond to the protest movement as a whole, many Western commentators have advised silence, suggesting that too much support from the US and its allies would only legitimize Khamenei’s claims that those foreign powers had been behind the uprisings in the first place. But Shadi Hamid disputed this in an article in The Atlantic by noting that Middle Eastern adversaries of the US will blame domestic unrest on the West no matter what American leaders do.
The White House has already released statements expressing concern about human rights abuses and general support for the Iranian people’s cause, in keeping with President Donald Trump’s hardline stance on Iran policy. But Hamid insisted that this must be a broader policy and that recent protesters, along with prospective future protesters, “need to know that the members of the international community, including America’s European allies, are paying close attention and not merely playing a delicate ‘both sides-ism’ in the interest of an imaginary rapprochement with the Iranian regime.”