The IRGC had made similar claims in the middle of last week, with Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari asserting that only “limited” intervention had been necessary to bring an end to gatherings in which no more than 15,000 people had participated. At the time, however, posts were still accumulating on social media which called for demonstrations in dozens of Iranian cities. Meanwhile, global news outlets were conclusively reporting that participation in the protests numbered well into the tens of thousands.
At the same time that the IRGC claimed the protests were at an end, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was encouraging his fellow government officials to broaden their narratives about the movement, which began in Mashhad, the second most populous Iranian city, with outcry over recent increases in food prices at a time of persistent unemployment and inflation. But after these initial protests, other slogans began to be repeated in various towns and cities. Some called for an end to Iranian intervention in foreign conflicts and others urged the resignation of both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. For many participants, the demonstrations constituted an effort to overturn the ruling theocratic system itself.
Hardline authorities have sought to focus solely on the economic roots of the conflict, evidently believing that this narrative conceals broader public animosity toward the clerical regime and also allows them to portray the protests as being directed primarily against Rouhani, a political rival of the hardline faction whose position is generally regarded as having more influence over the economy than over foreign policy and other state affairs. The supreme leader is the ultimate authority in virtually all matters.
Perhaps motivated by the desire to compel his hardline detractors to share some of the blame for the latest uprising, Rouhani acknowledged on Monday that the protests had been motivated by the people’s “economic, political, and social demands,” according to Reuters. He also stated that “it would be a misrepresentation and also an insult to Iranian people to say they only had economic demands.”
The Rouhani administration also made efforts to publicly discourage government authorities from making permanent their restrictions on the social media platforms that had been utilized to organize many of the demonstrations. The ban has apparently already been lifted on the image-sharing platform Instagram, but restrictions remain in place for the instant messaging app Telegram, which has become particularly popular within the activists community over the past few years, in part because of the perception of its relative security, respective to other social media platforms.
Facebook and Twitter have both been banned in Iran since shortly before the 2009 Green Movement protests, to which the current demonstrations have drawn numerous comparisons. However, these bans are routinely circumvented by the tech savvy population, mainly through the use of virtual proxy networks. The US State Department acknowledged last week that it had communicated with protesters and urged the use of these tools to stay ahead of Tehran’s efforts to obstruct the organization of further gatherings.
Resisting “Infiltration” and “Reform”
Although there is no evidence that Western contact with the protesters proceeded the emergence of their movement, Iranian authorities were quick to blame foreign enemies and banned dissident groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran for organizing the uprising. To the extent that newly imposed restrictions will remain in place after the end of that uprising, these can be expected to be aimed in large part at further isolating the Iranian public from foreign sources of information that Tehran perceives as a threat to its hold on power.
Underscoring this fact, the New York Times reported on Monday that regime authorities had announced a ban on the teaching of English in Iranian primary schools. The recent protests were not mentioned in the context of this announcement, but many of those who learned about it through social media drew comparisons to the “filtering” of Telegram and other information technology resources. Protesters reportedly described the measure as the “filtering of English.”
Iranian hardliners have been particularly insistent about the threat of foreign “infiltration” into the Islamic Republic since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations with six world powers in July 2015. In an apparent bid to discourage expectations of greater international cooperation, the IRGC and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence have been spearheading a crackdown on perceived Western influence, which has included the detention of several political prisoners who hold citizenship in United States, Britain, and other “enemy” nations.
The allegedly moderate President Rouhani was the driving force behind the nuclear agreement on the Iranian side, and this has helped to deepen the rivalry between his political faction and that of the hardliners more closely associated with Supreme Leader Khamenei. But since the conclusion of that agreement, Rouhani has done little to justify the perceived expectations of increased dialogue with the outside world. Neither has he taken recognizable measures toward confronting the regime’s reactionary crackdown, despite various campaign promises suggesting he would do so.
Rouhani reiterated many of his earlier promises regarding freedom for political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions on the media during his 2017 reelection campaign. But soon after winning a second term in May, he began to distance himself from those promises, saying for instance that the release of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi would depend to a great extent upon the actions of the Iranian judiciary and other hardline authorities.
The betrayal of these campaign promises was a major target of the “political and social demands” that were voiced in the past week of demonstrations. Many protesters specifically expressed regret at supporting Rouhani, and accordingly called for him to step down. Nevertheless, by acknowledging these very demands and expressing opposition to permanent restrictions, Rouhani appears to be trying to once again realign himself with his moderate or even reformist public image.
Taking Stock of Arrests and Killings
Adding to the effort to reclaim its moderate credentials, the Rouhani administration has made public statements calling for the release of students who have been arrested in recent days. But other regime authorities seem to be taking much the same approach, as evidenced by the judiciary’s announcement that dozens of arrestees have been released and that more will be set free if demonstrations continue to die down.
This message has, however, been counterbalanced by threats of retaliation specifically against the arrested “leaders” of the movement. But international observers almost universally described the movement as spontaneous and leaderless, considering that those who receive punishment may be chosen arbitrarily or on the basis of their unrelated political affiliations and activities.
CNN quoted one reformist lawmaker on Saturday as saying that 58 arrestees had been identified as students from Tehran universities. Mahmoud Sadeqi also said that approximately 30 other students from other parts of the country had been identified as probably being among the detained, although 10 of them could not be located. Sadeqi was reportedly cooperating with the University of Tehran in its effort to identify all of its students who have been detained, and to urge their release.
There’s little doubt that the actual number of detained students is much higher than the 90 cited by Sadeqi, or that the overall arrest figures are substantially larger than those given by Iranian authorities. The CNN report indicated that those authorities admitted of only 450 arrests, but previous reports identified this as the number who had been arrested in the capital city alone, during just three of the first four days of protests. The State Department agrees with the conclusion that there have been at least 1,000 arrests, and the BBC indicates that some reports have put the number at 1,700.
The BBC mentioned this figure in the context of its report on the latest confirmed death from the protests, that of 22-year-old Sina Qanbari. Officials at Evin Prison publicly acknowledged that death, describing it as a suicide. Of course, this explanation has been given for a number of suspicious deaths of Iranian political prisoners over the years, and so Qanbari’s death only adds to existing human rights concerns.
Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa released a statement on the regime’s crackdown, which said, “Given the alarming scale of the current wave of arrests, it is highly likely that many of those held are peaceful protesters who have been detained arbitrarily and now find themselves in prisons where conditions are dire and torture is a common tool to extract confessions and punish dissidents.”
In light of Tehran’s official explanation for Qanbari’s death, it is not clear whether it has been factored into the media’s account of the number of people killed by regime authorities since the protests began. On Monday, most news outlets put that number at 21 or 22, but the National Council of Resistance of Iran said that at least 30 people had already been killed as of early last week.
Trying to Stave Off the Looming Instability
Various analyses of the protests have suggested that the regime’s repression may be successful in putting an end to the demonstrations, even if the IRGC’s claims about having already done so are false. But these analyses generally go on to say that that political violence will only engender more protests in the future. Fareed Zakaria provided a similar assessment in a Washington Post editorial on Thursday, which said that the groundwork has been laid for a new revolution but also that a period of instability probably lays ahead because “the regime also has instruments of power, ideology, repression and patronage, all of which it is ready to wield to stay in control.”
Zakaria also suggested that revolutionary sentiment has been encouraged by small steps toward reform that the Iranian government has taken in recent years, but that have generally been reversed by conservative authorities. If such a pattern continues, the regime might prove willing to consider some of the protester’s demands in the near future, as President Rouhani has recommended it do. But at the same time, the regime is unlikely to respond to these demands in comprehensive or long-lasting way, meaning it is unlikely to stave off subsequent uprisings.
Rouhani’s own public statements and the judiciary’s efforts to downplay the extent of the latest crackdown are arguably indicative of the impulse to partially concede to the protest movement even while repressing it. Perhaps also indicative of that impulse, there are emerging reports that Rouhani’s firebrand predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been arrested. Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection was the spark that ignited the Green Movement and since finishing his term in 2013 he has been relegated to the fringes of Iranian politics, although he still has a devoted following among some hardliners.
The World Tribune reported on Monday that Ahmadinejad’s alleged arrest was based on public statements that were seen as fomenting arrest. Although the recent protests included calls for regime change, there have been some reports that the initial demonstrations were organized by hardliners in an effort to focus attention on Rouhani’s economic failures. If this is true, the project had unanticipated consequences, possibly including the regime being compelled toward a more forceful disavowal of the former standard bearers of the hardline faction.
This is not likely to translate into an official embrace of reform, however. In light of the ongoing repression of protesters, it is more likely a sign that aggressive pubic expressions of hardline ideology are now recognized as a liability for the regime, and as something that underscores the need for popular revolt. The World Tribune reports that authorities are hoping to place Ahmadinejad under arrest, thus subjecting him to the same fate as the Green Movement leaders, who are seen as encouraging such revolt and threatening Iran’s stability from the other side of the political spectrum.