On the Recent Protests

As you may have noticed, I’ve been on one of my long(er) hiatuses from blogging due to intervening life circumstances. Between several other projects, as well as a cross-ocean move happening next week, I simply haven’t had the time for blogging. So what’d I miss? Anything going on in Iran these days?

I guess in a way I was a bit lucky to be absent from the blogosphere for the duration of the latest round of political protests in Iran, the largest since the Green Revolution in 2009. But really, with seemingly everyone weighing in on what [they think] is happening over there, it’s not like anyone has been starved for hot Iran takes these past few weeks.

That, unfortunately, is part of the problem.

The “Fog of War” instructs us to be wary of the risks of uncertainty in our assessments of warfare as it is taking place. The fog of protest and mass uprisings isn’t much different. Trying to figure out in the moment what mass groups of people really, truly want leaves the door wide open to bad or sloppy interpretations based on selective evidence and confirmation bias. For example, if you thought that the Iranian people yearned for freedom from their tyrannical overlords, then the recent protests were undoubtedly an expression of that desire for liberation. If, on the other hand, you thought that Iranians were fed up with the false promises of better economic opportunities, and thus a better life, well, there was plenty of evidence to support that position as well.

Sadly, too many people are trying to analyze what is happening in Iran without the required self-awareness about what they don’t actually know about the country. That’s why even as the protests were developing and no one really had a good grasp of what was happening on the ground, there was still a deluge of 20+ tweet threads claiming to have the inside scoop on “What is Really Going On.”

This is not to say that there wasn’t anything to be learned here, just that it is difficult to do so while events are still unfolding. Now, with the protests starting to die down and the fog beginning to lift a bit, it is slightly easier to take a more objective view of what happened in Iran over the past couple weeks. Only time and additional information will reveal the true meaning and lasting legacy of this round of protests, but for now, here are a few early observations:

  • The Mashad rally on December 28 was the genesis point for the unrest. Conservative factions organized a protest there in an effort to demonstrate public displeasure with the policies of President Hassan Rouhani. The rally quickly grew beyond the hardliners’ control, however, when increasing numbers of Iranians took to the streets in cities across the country to voice grievances with the government that went far beyond complaints about the president.
  • Rouhani himself may have [unintentionally] lit the fuse for the counter-uprising when he released the annual budget in early December. The document included details of government spending on unaccountable religious institutions, which received billions of dollars in support while subsidies for ordinary Iranians were cut.
  • Slogan-chanting during the rallies ran the political gamut, running from pro-reform to extreme hardline. Scenes of these rallies leaked out on social media platforms like Twitter and Telegram in snippets of video, creating a veritable buffet of ready-made supporting evidence for anyone looking to spin the movement into a preferred single narrative.
    • It should also be noted here that there were preexisting plans for massive pro-government rallies on December 30 to mark the anniversary of the end of the Green Revolution demonstrations. Regime supporters tried to use the size of these rallies as evidence of popular support for the system, but these were not spontaneous events.
  • The protests were largely leaderless, which made effecting any real political change virtually impossible. I suspect this is the reason why it took so long for Iran’s top political leaders, including Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to issue public statements about the protests. They may have been hoping the protests would die out quickly without the need for significant government intervention. When that didn’t happen — a testament to the level of overall societal discontent — they were eventually forced to address the issue publicly.
  • There were two strands of government response. The hardliners blamed the protests on outside agitators and unnamed “enemies,” suggesting that the origins of the movement were less than authentic (ironically, they were, but for different reasons — see first bullet point above). On the other side, Rouhani stressed the legitimacy of the people’s right to protest, although he was careful to point out that expressing discontent does not include committing acts of violence.

So where does Iran go from here?

It’s difficult to say.

Politically, not much has changed since Iran’s presidential election this past May. Rouhani is still pressing for incremental reform, while his hardline opponents are still trying to undermine his agenda. Rouhani lashed out at the hardliners yesterday, saying, “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations.” He’s made similar statements to this effect in the past. Rouhani has promised that Telegram, banned in the midst of the protests, will be fully restored soon.

This back and forth rivalry between Rouhani and the hardliners is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. I suspect that Rouhani may have the upper hand. The hardliners, who control most of the positions of unelected power in Iran, remain committed to thwarting the president, but they suffer from a dearth of political talent. Their leadership is aging — Supreme Leader Khamenei has significant health problems — and the conservatives do not have many charismatic or recognizable personalities rising up through the ranks.

Despite Iran’s economic problems, there is no reason yet to believe that the population is turning against Rouhani. That may change in the coming year if the nuclear deal, Rouhani’s signature achievement, completely collapses or if Iran’s economy craters, but absent a real shock to the system, Rouhani’s biggest asset is still his lack of any real competition for public approval.

With his consistent critiques of the hardline establishment, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, Rouhani has achieved something novel in the history of the Islamic Republic. In effect, he’s co-opted the identity of the opposition movement while remaining an integral part of the regime system. Previous reformers, such as the popular former president Mohammad Khatami, suffered because of their inability to work within the Islamic Republic system. They did not possess the necessary political clout to take on the hardline establishment. Rouhani just might.