After Five Days of Mass Protests, Tehran Is Still Weighing Its Response

By INU Staff

INU - Monday marked the fifth day of the protests that had spread across much of Iran after the first incidents were reported in the nation’s second city of Mashhad on Thursday. As the geographic scope of the demonstrations has spread, so too have the demands being voiced by participants. The initial protest was reportedly sparked by poor economic indicators and the sharp rise in the price of certain commodities, but since then slogans have been heard in as many as 50 cities calling for large-scale reforms or even calling for “death to the dictator”, in reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Criticism of the supreme leader is taboo in the Islamic Republic and it constitutes a frequent cause for political imprisonments. Public gatherings without the approval of security forces are also considered illegal, but as of Monday, Iranian citizens were continuing to respond to calls on social media for mass demonstrations. This coordinated defiance of the country’s repressive laws has helped the current protests to secure a reputation as the most widespread and significant instances of “anti-government” activism since the 2009 Green Movement, which grew out of disputes over the reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

These same factors have led to a predictable crackdown on the protests by security forces, which had reportedly led to at least a dozen deaths by Monday. UPI indicated that this figure had been publicized by Iranian state television, which also declared that at least 400 people had been arrested, including 200 in Tehran on Sunday night alone.

This latter claim, however, seems to be at odds with the reporting of other media outlets that are close to hardline elements of the Iranian regime. Fars News Agency, for instance, claimed that only scattered groups had been observed protesting in the Iranian capital and that these had been organized under a central authority, the ringleader of which was arrested. Such claims build upon those that were made by Tehran officials as early as Friday. At that time, the Associated Press quoted the city’s governor, Mohsen Hamedani, as saying that only 50 people had gathered, most of whom dispersed immediately when warned by police.

A subsequent AP report cast doubt upon the notion of a ringleader’s arrest, pointing out that no central leadership had emerged in these protests, which appear instead to be a spontaneous outpouring of the frustrations of the Iranian public. The AP also repeated some observers earlier claims that the Mashhad protests had been initiated by hardliners in an effort to turn the people’s economic grievances against President Hassan Rouhani, a major architect of the 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and five other world powers.

IranWire also mentioned the allegations and quoted one analyst as saying that the Mashhad hardliners’ scheme was like “setting a match to a gunpowder store that neither those who lighted the match nor the government has any control over.” This comparison was largely based on the observation that the Iranian people are well-justified in their economic grievances and that the Iranian system is inherently incapable of addressing those problems.

In the midst of the present crisis, many Iranian officials, including Rouhani, have acknowledged the first point but rejected the second. UPI quoted Rouhani as expressing awareness of the fact that economic problems have not diminished as they were expected to do in the wake of the nuclear deal. But he went on to call for unity across the country, under the leadership of the existing government, with an eye toward fixing those problems. At the same time, he rejected as illegitimate the broader grievances that had been voiced in these protests, including those that relate to his failure to deliver on promises of reform.

The Los Angeles Times observed that Rouhani described the anti-government protestors as only a “small minority”, which “threatens the sanctity of the Islamic revolution”. His description of the crisis is different from that of Fars News in that it makes no apparent effort to downplay the size of the demonstrations, only the scope of the message. Yet many elements of the regime have expressed interest in cracking down on both of these factors, and it is not clear to what extent the president will contradict their message, even in the wake of the first dozen protest-related casualties.

On one hand, the LA Times quoted Rouhani as urging security forces not to repeat the “mistakes” of the 2009 Green Movement by suppressing the protests with fatal violence. But on the other hand, CNN indicated that Rouhani had cited a past history of “handling” mass protests, in comparison to which the current demonstrations would be “nothing”. Seeing as these protests have been widely described as outpacing all others since 2009, it may be difficult to interpret Rouhani’s commentary as anything other than a reminder of the regime’s suppressive capabilities.

Other elements of the Islamic Republic have been much more straightforward, however, in calling for the use of this suppression. Time Magazine reported on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ vow to crush the protests, a call that was repeated by Kayhan newspaper, which is considered to be a mouthpiece for the office of the supreme leader. In an analysis of the developing situation, the AP indicated that the supreme leader alone would ultimately determine the next steps to be taken by the regime in response to protests.

In its own analysis, Al Jazeera concluded that this system with the supreme leader at its head would continue to prevent the regime from adapting to changing circumstances, including but not limited to the economic situation that sparked Thursday’s protests. While the relevant grievances provided a backdrop for the repetition of Rouhani’s call to unity, Al Jazeera finds that hardliners affiliated with Supreme Leader Khamenei effectively rejected the prospect of such unity long ago.

The system described in that analysis is one in which protests are endemic and suppression is the only effective government response to them. IranWire similarly declared that according to one expert, the government has no other choice after having overseen the “implosion” of the nation’s economy. And while it may not yet be clear exactly what strategy Khamenei plans to pursue in the coming days, it is certainly clear that repressive measures went into effect very soon after the protests began to spread beyond Mashhad and beyond their economic messaging.

Some of the advocacy for repression has focused on restrictions in the flow of information. For example, Tehran’s Friday prayer leader Movahedi Kermani used his most recent sermon to call for a model of internet access that emulates that of China, in which “no thought that goes against China’s system enters people’s minds.”

The Iranian internet is already heavily filtered, and Twitter has been blocked since it played a major role in organizing the Green Movement protests. But the tech savvy Iranian public has steadily adapted, both by using proxy networks to evade the restriction and by shifting activist communications to other platforms, most notably the instant messaging app Telegram. Now, numerous reports indicate that Telegram and the image sharing app Instagram have both been blocked. Additionally, there have been some reports of mobile internet outages recurring intermittently throughout the country.

There is no doubt that the immediate motive for such restrictions is to diminish the people’s ability to organize domestically. But at the same time, remarks from figures like Kermani also underscore their conviction, however earnest it may be, that the protests are at least partly the result of foreign infiltration. While Kermani referred to anti-government sentiments entering Iran from the outside, the Isfahan prayer leader Mohammad Taqi Rahbar repeatedly said in an interview with IranWire that he believed some people were trying to “exploit” the people’s economic grievances in service of a larger goal.

Like Rouhani, Rahbar promoted a narrative that accepted economic issues as legitimate while rejecting all others and suggesting that some or all of them were contrary to the Islamic religion itself. According to CNN, the governor of Lorestan Province did essentially the same, claiming that all recent clashes between government forces and the people were instigated solely by foreign intelligence services and domestic terrorists or “takfiri groups”.

No evidence has been provided to support the notion of foreign infiltration as a driving force behind these protests. But, of course, the demonstrations have caught the attention of foreign leaders who have a reputation for opposition to the leadership of the Islamic Republic.

US President Donald Trump commented on the situation several times via Twitter, saying in one post, “The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer.” Vice President Mike Pence used the same platform to express his own support and arguably went further by implying the possibility of future American support. “We must not and we will not let them down,” he wrote.

Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu predictably weighed in on the situation as well, posting a YouTube video on the topic on Monday and wishing the Iranian people “success in their noble quest for freedom”. The AP reported that Netanyahu also took the opportunity to criticize European leaders for remaining silent even as reports accumulated of the regime’s worsening crackdown. This is of course reminiscent of Israeli and American criticisms of the Europeans reactions to other issues of concern such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its influence in the broader Middle East.
Trump indicated that his government would be keeping an eye on human rights violations in the midst of the current demonstrations. That administration’s previous activities on Iran policy suggest that information along these lines will likely be highlighted for European partners in an effort to develop more widespread support for an assertive Iran policy.

With this in mind, it is also likely that the Iranian regime’s recent crackdowns on internet access have been directed not only at limiting the flow of information within Iran but also at limiting the outward flow of information about the demonstrations. Helping to justify this conclusion, IranWire pointed out that according to persons who had witnessed protests on Saturday at Tehran University, security forces directed most of their attention toward preventing participants and bystanders from capturing photos or video of the event.