Explained

The Truth About the Protests in Iran

Some myths surrounding the Iran protests don't matter, and some are just wrong. Avoid fake news: there are many viewpoints worth examining, regarding protests in particular and Iran in general

Iranians shop at Tehran's ancient Grand Bazaar on January 4, 2018.
ATTA KENARE/AFP

Over the past week, the Israeli and international media have been busy with the developments in Iran. We’ve had it all: Mountains of commentary, strident headlines and a lot of “fake news.” Now, with reports describing a calmer atmosphere with less demonstrations, the time has come to put things in order and focus on a few viewpoints that are worth examining, both regarding the protests in particular and the events in Iran in general.

The protests began on December 28, 2017

Not true. The violent disturbances have been going on for a few months, but were not frequent or noteworthy enough to receive media attention. In one incident they desecrated a mosque (this happened during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar); in another, they beat up a religious leader; elsewhere, a protest against corruption featured slogans in support of the Shah. What began on December 28 was a large wave of protests all over Iran.

As a result of the heavy media coverage of the protests against corruption in Mashhad, other demonstrators took to the streets. The very same day, three more centers of protest sprung up, and on the next day other cities joined in; the day after that, December 30, they reached Tehran.

What is unique about this wave of protests is that none of the demonstrations was very large. There were no photographs of protesters filling the streets from end to end, but the demonstrations are still very widespread. The hashtag accompanying them is “#ProtestsEverywhere.” According to calls for protests on various channels of the messaging app Telegram, the protests are happening in hundreds of places.

This time, the protests are about the economy

Partially true – very partially. The first protests really were about the high cost of living (the price of eggs and poultry went up by tens of percent recently), against corruption (people’s life savings were wiped out from their pension funds) and against the economic situation in general. They expressed general disappointment that the nuclear deal did not bring about an improvement in their personal financial situation. This may also be one of the reasons that at the beginning, the regime allowed protesters to “let off steam” without cracking down on the demonstrations with a heavy hand, as it knows how to do and has done in the past.

But at the moment that more demonstrators joined in and the protests spread to other parts of the country, it very quickly became clear that the economic issue was just a very small part of the Iranian people’s pain and demands for change.

From the original cries of “Death to [President Hassan] Rohani” and “Put the corrupt to death,” they moved on to economic slogans with a shade of politics, such as “The people are begging and [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei acts like God,” and “Forget Syria, look at our wallets.” From there they moved on to clearly political slogans: “They turned Islam into stairs and are trampling us on the way up,” “Death to the dictator” and “Reformists, conservatives – the jig is up.”

This wave of protests is not just about economic issues, and it would be impossible to satisfy the protesters even with far-reaching economic reforms. They want to be rid of the Islamic Republic and become a secular democracy.

The public believes that the demonstrations were started by the regime but got out of control

True! So why is this played down? Every Iranian I’ve talked to about the demonstrations has told me that the conservatives, the real ones holding power (with Khamenei as their representative), started these demonstrations in order to get rid of Rohani. Many people can’t distinguish between Iran and the Islamic Republic, so how can they distinguish between different government branches and different competing ideological factions? The president, one should remember, is the head of the executive branch. He doesn’t make important decisions on his own but carries out the policies that are dictated by the leader, a conservative. He has very little room to maneuver. Conservatives don’t like Rohani because he’s too moderate, too open to the West and his supporters expect the government to do more to protect human rights (which he can’t deliver but they can still hope for).

The demonstrations started in the periphery, not in Tehran; they focused on economic issues, with people calling for “death to Rohani”; and they weren’t immediately suppressed. These facts led Iranians to one conclusion: The first demonstrators were there on behalf of the regime, but then things got out of hand.

Incidentally, Iranian leaders are saying that their enemies, namely Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia, are inciting people to demonstrate.

In 2009 the protesters had leaders, but there aren’t any this time around

Partially right, but irrelevant. There are more differences than similarities between the demonstrations happening now and those that took place in 2009. In addition to the wider geographical range and the smaller number of demonstrators, the main difference is that in 2009, the argument was that people voted for one president (and remember: the president executes but the leader decides) but got another. The very act of voting is considered by many to be a vote of confidence in the regime, which is why many opponents don’t even bother to vote. Since the 2009 elections there has been a steady rise in voter turnout – opponents of the regime realized that if they want to have any influence, they should cast a ballot. The regime uses the high turnout rates as an indication of public support for the system.

The current demonstrations are an unequivocal and sweeping expression of non-confidence in the system and a demand that it be changed. In 2009 Mir-Hossein Mousavi (the candidate not elected) and Mehdi Karroubi were the reason people went out to demonstrate, but they didn’t lead the demonstrations. It’s hard to lead when you’re spirited away. But if the demonstrations had succeeded, it’s clear who would have won and in what capacity. The demonstrations happening now are against the system. There must have been some leadership since it seemed that they were planned and coordinated. The #restartIran movement, which began with a violent protest a few months ago, had a leader – Mohammed Hosseini, an exiled TV personality – but there is no real plan or leader for the day after, if it ever comes.

Iranians miss the Shah

Partially true, but the analyses are wrong. It’s true that there were slogans such as “Reza Shah [the father of the last Shah, who ruled between 1925 and 1941], rest in peace,” “no one is accountable in Iran without a king,” and even “O king of Iran, return to Iran,” but Iranians don’t really want a return to a monarchy. Most supporters of the monarchy are in exile. Iranians who miss the shah don’t miss a good era – only one that was less bad. There were also serious infringements on human rights and no freedom of expression during the shah’s time, and torture in prisons was a routine matter. The aim of the current demonstrations is to achieve a secular democracy or an Iranian republic, not a monarchy.

Religious people support the regime, only secular people oppose it

Not true. The regime is ostensibly a religious one. The supreme leader has to be an ayatollah and most presidents were religious figures with a rank of hujjat al-Islam (one lower than an ayatollah). However, secular people are also among its supporters. These are people who receive benefits from the regime and have something to lose if it falls. They aren’t necessarily religious. Moreover, there are ayatollahs who don’t recognize Khamenei’s religious title, since he obtained it under some more lax conditions – and he didn’t write a book of rulings like other ayatollahs. There are some ayatollahs who are in prison, and some that the regime leaves high and dry, depriving them of influence. Each such ayatollah has followers who are religious but oppose the regime. From slogans heard in the streets this week one may understand that people believe that Islam was stolen from them and misused.

We have a good idea what is happening

Not true. Not only can we not predict the future, but we don't even know what is going on in the present. Different pictures emerge from the various people I talked with in Iran, depending on where they are and the extent of their involvement in the demonstrations. Some talk about the internet being blocked or slowed while others say there have been no changes and everything is functioning as usual. Demonstrations always look bigger when they’re filmed from the inside. The most reliable source we have for developments in Iran are social media and various Telegram channels, but there, too, everyone has their own agenda. For example, the incident of a 13-year-old boy who was shot dead in the city of Khomeyni-Shahr was adopted by both sides. Demonstrators say: Look, these are the people the government calls “troublemakers.” Regime supporters say that he was shot by protesters. The demonstrators are more violent this time. They shoot at security forces, break storefront windows and burn banks, stores and offices associated with the regime.

Really?

In one of the video clips shown on the original Amed news website (the site constantly gets shut down and subsequently reopens under a new name – the current one is Amed 3), policemen are breaking car windows in order to lay the blame on the demonstrators. In another video, a wounded person says that he saw demonstrators breaking bank windows and berated them for using violent tactics. In response, he says, they tell him that they are policemen. They shoot him and tell him to go and say that he was shot by the police. A user on Twitter reported that police officers are breaking windows and torching stores in order to then blame the protesters. One analysis from Iran claims that hooligans took over the demonstrations, which were supposed to be quiet and orderly, and that they are utilizing the disturbances in order to damage private businesses.

If we don’t know what is happening in the present, we certainly can’t know the future. The West did not predict the 1979 revolution and what came after it. This wave of demonstrations – even though people’s dissatisfaction is known to all analysts and pundits – caught everyone by surprise.

Dr. Eilam Gindin is an Iran researcher at the Shalem Center.