On Monday, Canyon News reported that the city council of Beverly Hills, California had voted the previous week on a resolution expressing support for the then-ongoing demonstrations. The resolution passed unanimously and included language that called upon other cities throughout the world to make similar declarations of support.
In commenting on the measure, Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse said, “The unemployment, inflation, corruption, and disregard for freedom and human rights cannot be tolerated anywhere in the world. We must, as a City, champion the rights of all people to provide for their families, educate their children and worship in their own way – in other words, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Such comments reflect awareness of widespread reports that the demonstrations began with focus on persistently poor economic indicators throughout the country but then took on a broader message, including some explicit calls for regime change.
he Beverly Hills resolution was passed two days after another California neighborhood hosted a mass demonstration in support of the Iranian protests, according to the Los Angeles Times. The report indicated that about 2,000 people gathered in the L.A. neighborhood of Westwood on January 7. Most of the participants represented the expatriate community that is centered around an area informally known as “Tehrangeles”.
One of those participants was quoted as saying of the demonstration and other expatriate activism, “We’re going to do everything in our power to help democracy.”
This sentiment was reflected on the other side of the United States the day before the January rally, when Iranian Americans from the Washington D.C. area gathered outside of the White House to express solidarity with the Iranian protesters and also support for the Trump administration’s response to the demonstrations, which by then included its call for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that the rally was a follow-up to another such rally the week before, and that it included participation not only from Iranian expatriates but also from American politicians and foreign policy experts including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
At the time of the January 6 rally, its organizers had determined that 3,000 people had been arrested and 50 killed in demonstrations that spanned approximately 80 Iranian cities. Since then, an Iranian lawmakers has acknowledged 3,700 arrests, while the NCRI has concluded that there were more than twice that number. Such figures suggest that the Iranian regime responded in much the same way to the latest demonstrations as it did to the Green Movement, which was violently suppressed after several months of demonstrations in 2009, following the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The latest protests have been widely described as the greatest challenge to the Iranian regime since the Green Movement uprising. And while there is little dispute about Iran’s violent response to it, some reports suggest that the challenge to the regime is more complicated this time around. For instance, Bloomberg confirmed on Monday that security forces and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had come down hard on the protesters, but the same report also indicated that an unusual public debate had also emerged out of the protests.
At the level of Iranian politics, this trend seems to relate primarily to the desire of the so-called reformist and conservative factions of the regime to advance different narratives about the uprising and portray their political rivals as the main targets of it. Toward that end, hardliners have mainly emphasized the economic roots of the protests, which are particularly associated with disappointment over the performance of President Hassan Rouhani and his “reformist” faction. Meanwhile, Rouhani has publicly acknowledged that there were also social and political demands expressed in the protests.
What neither of these factions will admit to, however, is the widespread perception highlighted by Bloomberg, that many of the protesters had lost faith in both factions and had concluded that the existing regime is fundamentally incapable of addressing the needs of the Iranian people. Indeed, the NCRI has called attention to chants that emerged in many of the protests which addressed both “conservatives” and “reformists” in order to say, “The whole game is over.”
Despite these thinly veiled calls for a revolution against the clerical regime, its officials’ desire to turn other slogans against their political rivals has no doubt contributed to the observed trend of those officials defending the people’s right to voice grievances. Even the regime’s highest authority and hardline standard-bearer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, repeated this unusual position while attempting to portray the crackdown as being directed only against rioters and marginal revolutionary elements of the protest movement.
Along these same lines, regime officials have made significant efforts downplay the extent of the crackdown. Iranian state media proclaimed on Monday that 440 protesters had been released from police custody. But as CNN pointed out, after the first week of protests, Tehran would only admit that 450 arrests take occurred in the first place. Now that a clearer picture of the extent of the crackdown is emerging, the 440 releases seem less significant, especially when one considers that an unknown number of these individuals has merely been released on bail, meaning they could still face serious punishment under Iranian law.
National Police spokesman Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi has said that the majority of protesters were released on bail but the “leaders” remain in custody. Judiciary Spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei apparently sought to give a similar impression when he emphasized that “only 55 suspects” remained in custody in the capital city of Tehran. But the detention of the movement’s “leaders” is questionable in light of the widespread claims in international media that the movement had been spontaneous and largely leaderless.
This raises concerns that prolonged detentions are being carried out arbitrarily or on the basis of individuals’ political affiliations or previous activities. And despite the regime’s general efforts to portray leniency in its response to the recent demonstrations, the judiciary has publicly threatened that death sentences might be awaiting those who are deemed to be most responsible for the unrest.
The NCRI further highlighted the contrast between the crackdown and the superficial defense of free speech when it accused regime authorities of carrying out two public executions on January in the interest of reinforcing a climate of repression and discouraging the resurgence of protests. Public executions are a fairly common occurrence in the Islamic Republic, which has the world’s highest per-capita rate of executions besides.
The NCRI also pointed out that six other arrests had taken place in the 10 days prior to the pair of public hangings, and that one of these cases involved a mentally ill perpetrator and another involved an individual who was under the age of 18 at the time of his alleged crime.
But the French-headquartered NCRI is by no means alone in speaking out against deaths that have taken place against the backdrop of the recent unrest. This was the focus of a Sunday New York Times article, which highlighted both the Iranian regime’s attempts to deny responsibility for those deaths and the “audacity” that the public has displayed in questioning those efforts.
In the first place, Ejei, the judiciary spokesman, was quoted as saying “none of the bullets” that killed protesters had been fired by police or military personnel and that those who died in prison had committed suicide. But in the second place, these claims are meeting with pronounced public anger, while some influential personalities are actively adding names to the list of questionable deaths.
As an example, the Times points to the social media activity of actress Bahare Rahnama regarding the death of a 24-year-old Iranian Kurd whom she knew personally and who was posthumously described by regime officials as a terrorist. Rahnama’s rejection of this narrative led to the cause of the deceased being taken up by a group of activists that is already carrying on an independent investigation into the crackdown on the protests.
As another example of defiant public outcry, the NCRI reports that a coalition of 35 student councils from Iranian universities issued a statement urge the release of imprisoned students and accusing security forces of engaging in preemptive arrests on the basis of students’ identities or past activities, regardless of whether they participated in the recent demonstrations.
These various forms of backlash led the New York Times to conclude that “while the protests have largely subsided, the fallout in Iran may be just beginning,” and also that the public anger may signal a “potent new complication” for the regime and its supreme leader.
That complication is made greater by the fact that regime authorities, weakened by internal conflicts and under pressure from both domestic and international sources, has apparently declined to make new censorship restrictions permanent as it did in the wake of the Green Movement protests.
Al Jazeera reported on Monday that the popular Telegram instant messaging application had been unblocked. Already highly popular with the activist community for its perceived security, Telegram certainly contributed to the organization of protests on and after December 28 and can now be expected to further contribute to the ongoing public dialogue about the regime’s crackdown on those protests.