Is Tehran burning? Over the past few days, the Iranian regime has made great efforts to convince people that it has regained control and suppressed the sometimes violent protests which broke out nationwide on December 28. In Tehran, which didn’t see mass protests this time around, tens of thousands of government employees and regime supporters held a counter-demonstration on Wednesday.
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Even according to the journalists and opponents of the regime who have managed to circumvent the government’s clampdown on social media and its slowdown of the internet, the number of cities participating in the protest has apparently been declining. On Wednesday, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced that the revolt had been successfully suppressed and could be declared over.
Iran’s leadership is used to dealing with violent protests of varying intensity every few years. The most famous was the failed Green Revolution of 2009, but there have been smaller outbreaks over the decades. In recent years, the Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias subordinate to Iran have also violently suppressed opponents of the Assad regime in Syria alongside fighting in the civil war there.
The Iranian security services have displayed considerable sophistication and manipulation skills in dealing with past protests. Among other things, they’ve deterred demonstrators from flocking to main squares in the cities by hanging the bodies of regime opponents from cranes along the roads leading to them.
This isn’t the first time protests in Iran have erupted for economic reasons. Demonstrations over the cost of living or unemployment are seen as legitimate, so political protests can hitch a ride on them and broadcast political messages under their auspices.
Though no Western intelligence service predicted the timing of the current outbreak, assessments that widespread internal violence was possible in Iran have been prevalent for quite some time. Economic, social and political frustration have bubbled under the surface for years, and this frustration worsened once the hope that removing international sanctions would quickly rescue Iran from its economic woes proved false.
“A not insignificant portion of the Iranian people evidently opposes the regime’s regional policy and its investment of resources, at their expense, in exporting the revolution, involvement in Syria and aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen,” said Hagai Tzuriel, director general of the Intelligence Affairs Ministry, in a conversation with Haaretz this week. Tzuriel previously held a series of senior positions in the Mossad and spent years researching Iran in that capacity.
“The protest is relatively widespread,” he said. “It lacks central leadership, but it’s operating like a network. Moreover, the demonstrators belong to the lower classes, the oppressed, who have traditionally identified more with the values and symbols of the revolution.”
It’s still too early to know whether Jafari’s claim is correct and the government has indeed managed to suppress the protest, and the international community will play an important role in what comes next. But so far U.S. President Donald Trump has made do with a few moderately supportive tweets (as compared to his usual style), while French President Emmanuel Macron warned that enthusiastic statements from America and Israel backing the regime opponents could end up igniting a war with Iran.
Some senior American officials who support a harder line against Tehran are likely to see the protests as proof that economic sanctions remain the most effective tool for pressuring Iran. But as usual in the Trump administration, the gap between gut reactions and long-term policy is wide and almost unbridgeable.
Israel, contrary to Macron’s claim, has maintained its support for the demonstrations at a reasonable level and refrained from thrusting itself into center stage. Israeli intelligence officials who were asked about the issue this week sounded sober and cautious about the chances that the protests would somehow lead to the fall of the regime.
Some would apparently be content with a more modest achievement – for instance, the protesters forcing the regime to reduce its aid to terrorist and guerrilla organizations throughout the Middle East, of which Israel is one of the principal victims.
Pyongyang in focus
As I noted last week, developments in North Korea continue to occupy most of the Trump administration’s attention in regard to foreign policy, at the expense of the Iranian drama and other Middle East events. Trump has kept the fire burning through frequent tweets, climaxing in this week’s infantile assertion that his “nuclear button” is bigger than that of the North Korean ruler.
Eliot Cohen, a former senior official at both the Pentagon and the State Department under President George Bush and President George H.W. Bush, published a hair-raising article in the The Atlantic on Wednesday. He wrote that people with sharp ears can already hear the drums of war beating in the Korean peninsula.
Cohen argues that Trump considers himself an exceptionally successful president and believes that all his strategic and political forecasts have come true, in defiance of the experts’ gloomy prophecies. He cautions that this belief is liable to drag America into war.
People should not make light of the North Korean threat, Cohen wrote. Pyongyang is on the verge of developing the ability to destroy Los Angeles, and later, Washington as well, with nuclear missiles. Moreover, it has never demonstrated any qualms about selling advanced technology to anyone willing to pay.
In these circumstances, any American administration would have considered a preemptive military strike, Cohen wrote. But ultimately, they wouldn’t have ordered it.
A war would likely cause a humanitarian catastrophe, with missiles from the north raining on South Korea and hundreds of thousands of casualties. China is liable to side with North Korea, even at the risk of conflict with the United States.
Cohen also warns of the political repercussions. Most Americans believe the president lies frequently, he said, and when Trump, sitting in the Oval Office, explains his reasons for attacking North Korea, many in America won’t believe him – and the same goes for many American allies.
China is preparing camps near the North Korean border to absorb refugees, Cohen wrote. He also implied that America is making intelligence preparations for an attack. He quoted the commandant of the Marine Corps as saying, “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.”
Reading this article, written by a moderate and cautious military observer, puts our local problems – from Gaza to Iran – into perspective.