- Published: Wednesday, 03 January 2018
By INU Staff
INU - International coverage of Iran’s nationwide protests continued on Tuesday and began to display common narratives as the demonstrations entered their sixth day. The initial protests in the city of Mashhad, allegedly organized around economic issues by conservative opponents of President Hassan Rouhani, led to unexpected expansion in both the geographic and ideological scope of subsequent gatherings. This in turn led to highly predictable government crackdowns, resulting in numerous arrests and several deaths.
CNBC was among the outlets to report that nine people had been killed in the midst of the demonstrations on Monday night. One hundred people were reportedly arrested that night in the capital city of Tehran alone, after 250 others had been arrested in the same locality over the previous two nights. Figures for the total numbers of deceased and arrested protesters appeared more inconsistent as of Tuesday. It was generally agreed that the nine deaths from the previous night had raised the total to more than 20.
Al Jazeera placed the figure at 22 and also reported that at least 530 people had been arrested. But the National Council of Resistance of Iran, drawing upon its intelligence network inside the Islamic Republic, specified higher figures in both instances, saying that at least 30 people had been killed and 663 arrested. The NCRI also provided a breakdown on the location of a number of these arrests, in addition to the 450 that took place in Tehran.
That breakdown demonstrates one key fact that has been widely observed about the current wave of protests: they are different from the 2009 Green Movement and generally unusual among Iranian protest movements insofar as they are not geographically diffuse, involving a number of rural areas that are considered to be conservative strongholds rather than being focused primarily on socially progressive urban areas like Tehran.
In fact, Iranian officials appear to have responded to the growing protests in part by insisting that their original economic focus remained the only significant driving force and that the demonstrations held limited appeal in the capital and in other major cities apart from Mashhad.
Following the first day of protests, it was reported that Tehran officials had declared that only 50 people attended a local gathering and that most of them dispersed immediately following police warnings. Similar messaging seemed evident in quotations cited in the Los Angeles Times, with officials asserting that despite 450 arrests in three days, the demonstrations in the capital were naturally dying down. Those remarks went on to speculate that the rest of the country would soon follow suit.
The nearly simultaneous claims about mass arrests and waning popularity are not the only instances of self-contradiction in the regime’s response to the protests, Al Jazeera raised this issue in the context of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s personal response to the situation, which emerged for the first time on Tuesday. Khamenei sought to portray the protests as primarily the work of outside agitators. Business Insider quoted him as specifically blaming “wicked enemies backed by westerners, easterners, as well as reactionaries of the region”.
In the first place, his decision to weigh in is at odds with other officials’ attempts to downplay the significance of what is happening. At the same time, Al Jazeera notes that by giving credit to foreign infiltrators for such widespread demonstrations, Khamenei is contradicting the regime’s official position that such infiltrators have little real influence in the Islamic Republic. In fact, Al Jazeera asserts that the latter position is correct and that Khamenei’s claims regarding a foreign hand in the protests are not at all credible.
This, of course, is not to say that there hasn’t been an outpouring of foreign interest as the demonstrations have stretched on. Neither does this observation lead to the conclusion that foreign support for a domestically-driven movement hasn’t been welcomed by Iranian activists. Indeed, a BBC report consisting of direct commentary from Iranian citizens includes one quotation embracing the supportive remarks delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via Instagram.
The Iranian activist, identified only as Zahi, addressed Netanyahu directly and then turned his attention to other countries: “Thanks a lot for supporting the oppressed. I expect the same from all other countries. This cruel regime is harsh on its own people. We shouldn't be under batons and bullets. This isn't our destiny. We have the right to protest and we ask other countries to support us.”
Netanyahu’s use of social media to express support for the protest movement was predictably emulated on Twitter by US President Donald Trump, who has posted on the topic several times since the demonstrations started. His messages repeated familiar condemnations of the Iranian regime and praised the Iranian people for speaking out about the misappropriation of their wealth for terrorism and projects of regional intervention. These issues had previously been raised by many of the protestors themselves with slogans such as “forget about Syria; think about us!”
Apart from offering personal support for the protesters’ cause, Trump has also overseen responses from the White House that are passing through more official channels. ABC News reported on Tuesday that the administration was keeping up pressure to prevent Iran from blocking the social media platforms that have been used as effective organizing tools for the ongoing demonstrations. The Associated Press added that the White House was actively encouraging Iranian citizens to use virtual private networks in order to evade some of the new blockages that the Iranian government is imposing on specific websites.
Both outlets quoted Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein as saying that the US has “an obligation not to stand by.” He added, “We want to encourage the protesters to continue to fight for what's right and to open up Iran.”
Much of the international press has criticized President Trump over his direct commentary on the protests, suggesting that any American effort to influence their trajectory would feed into the Iranian supreme leader’s efforts to discredit the demonstrations as the work of foreign agents. Nevertheless, many of the same outlets have expressed earnest support for what the Trump administration is doing at the policy level, as opposed to at the level of pure public relations.
The Atlantic, for instance, insisted that any active American interference would help hardliners, but then advocated for Western powers the help facilitate the free flow of communication within Iranian society. Also, in an interview with PBS NewsHour, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recommended that the US could help to inhibit Iran’s ability to control communication, adding that one way of doing this would be by censuring any information technology companies that provide Iranian leaders with the tools to limit access within their country.
Sadjadpour also highlighted the considerable impact that the continued flow of information could have on the future of the still-emerging movement, which has reportedly been spreading in absence of centralized leadership or specific, across-the-board demands. He pointed out that whereas Twitter had been a highly successful organizing force in the 2009 Green Movement protests, those protests took place at a time when only one million Iranians could access the platform via smartphones. Today, 48 million Iranians have such devices.
The continued use of those devices as organizational tools would no doubt contribute to a situation that the BBC described as an “unpredictable challenge” for the ruling regime. The BBC also observed on Tuesday that momentum was still building for the grassroots movement. According to the Independent, that momentum is such that protesters in some areas have actually overpowered security forces and members of the basij civilian militia, disarming and dispersing some of the forces that might otherwise have violently repressed the gatherings.
Of course, it is still widely expected that state authorities will implement a campaign of such repression on the orders of the supreme leader. Sadjadpour noted that the weeks-long protests in 2009 were a case study in the regime’s highly developed capacity for violent repression, which has likely grown since then. And the Washington Post described the office of the supreme leader as having “many loyal and ruthless troops at his disposal.”
This fact, combined with the lack of any notable defections near the top of the regime, leads the Washington Post to conclude that the current demonstrations are unlikely to lead directly to a political tipping point. But the same report suggests that the suppression of those demonstrations will lead to the later recurrence of the same. Other outlets agree with this assessment, and Reuters cited the likelihood of repression leading to further protests as one of the main points of interest for Western leaders who are watching the situation unfold.
Perhaps equally important is the escalation in the overall tone of protesters’ messages, respective to the 2009 demonstrations. While the earlier movement was primarily focused on the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current slogans include calls for “death to the dictator,” in reference to Supreme Leader Khamenei and, by extension, the entire system of clerical rule.
It is reasonable to conclude that the suppression of previous demonstrations combined with the regime’s inability or unwillingness to address the underlying grievances is leading a growing number of Iranians to the conclusion that regime change is a necessary prerequisite for the improvement of their own future prospects.
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