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In Iran, When Does a Protest Become a Revolution?

Any outside intervention or statements by Western or Israeli politicians will mainly serve the regime in its claims that the protests are somehow being organized by foreign powers

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a statement on January 2, 2018. The portrait on the wall shows the late founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a statement on January 2, 2018. The portrait on the wall shows the late founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah KhomeiniCredit: ATTA KENARE/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

At what point do demonstrations against corruption and for social justice become an uprising? When is a local uprising transformed into a national revolution? And what are its chances?

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Five days in to the widest series of demonstrations in Iran since 2009, there is no way to ascertain at what stage the events are and how far they could reach. What began, as has been reported, as protests over the economic situation and were organized by conservative hardliners in an attempt to pressure President Hassan Rohanis government, have spread to dozens, perhaps already hundreds of towns and cities across the Islamic Republic, with the original instigators long ago losing control. So far, there has been no sign among the protesters or in their slogans of a political movement or figure they are supporting – just widespread protest against all symbols of the regime.

The information coming out of Iran is partial and disjointed. The local state and independent media are controlled by an iron fist and only a few foreign journalists are permanently stationed there. Having seen colleagues arrested and imprisoned, they are circumspect in their reports and anyway they are based in Tehran, which has only just (on Monday) joined the cycle of protests in a significant way. Most of the free Iranian journalists, living in the West, are reliant on friends and family inside Iran, and are likewise receiving a very limited picture of events.

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An image grab of Iranian protesters from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, January 1, 2018Credit: HANDOUT/AFP

Unlike the Green Movement of 2009, which was largely based on the educated middle class and concentrated in Tehran and other large cities, this wave of protests, at least in its early stages, seems to have originated with working-class residents of smaller cities and provincial towns. Even the top Iran experts are now seeing the same short videos that the rest of us, who dont speak a word of Farsi, are seeing. In them, people from towns many of us have never heard of before are shouting a mixture of slogans about poverty and deprivation, along with political and nationalistic calls for the downfall of the regime.

What is needed right now is a degree of humility on the part of everyone watching Iran from the outside – especially from journalists, pundits and politicians, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Monday became the first world leader to speak on camera on the Iranian protests (he was of course preceded by U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter). Humility is necessary not only because we are so far from and ill-informed about the events, but also to show weve learned the lesson of our collective failure in anticipating the revolutionary events that have been sweeping the region over the last seven years.

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The Arab uprising that began exactly seven years ago in Tunisia, and spread to other Middle Eastern countries, shook and in some cases uprooted long-standing dictatorships, but in no country did it follow the expected course. With time, Tunisia won a hard-fought, if still rather weak, democracy, but in Egypt, where the protesters ostensibly succeeded in sweeping away Hosni Mubaraks rule, there was no real revolution as the real power in the country, the army, remained in control throughout and is more powerful now than ever.

Libyans saw the removal of Muammar Gadhafi but received in his wake only ongoing chaos, while in Syria, after hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of uprooted refugees, Bashar al-Assad, against all predictions, is still president. In other countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the early signs of upheaval were nipped in the bud.

The 2009 demonstrations in Iran had a clear political goal – cancelling the presidential election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a second term as president amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Those rallies were much larger than the current wave of protests, at least so far, but also relatively easy for the regime to suppress as the movements leaders were known, as were the places where the demonstrators came from. The protests right now may be smaller, but are much more geographically widespread, and lack a clarity of cause and agenda. Thus, it is much more difficult for the authorities to articulate a response.

The moment of truth for any potential revolution comes when the regime gives the order to its security forces to open fire on the protesters. Seven years ago in Tunisia and Egypt, the refusal of police and military commanders to use live fire on demonstrators also showed presidents Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and Mubarak the door. In 2009, the members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Basij militia already proved they are prepared to open fire on Iranian civilians. With dozens of killings and hundreds of arrests, they succeeded in suppressing the incipient uprising. From reports of the last few days, the Basij are once again shooting demonstrators, but its not clear whether it will be enough. The spread of the protests and the fact they are taking place also in Kurdish, Azeri, Baluchi and other ethnic regions attests to a wave of protest that is not just economic and political, but also expresses the frustrations of oppressed minority groups.

The Iranian regime has hundreds of thousands of police, soldiers, Revolutionary Guards and militia members at its disposal to put down protests that challenge the hierarchy built over nearly 40 years since the Islamic Revolution. The question of whether these will be enough to prevent a wider uprising, and whether the protests can disrupt the functioning of the Islamic state, will take weeks, perhaps months, to answer. Meanwhile, any outside intervention or statements by Western or Israeli politicians will mainly serve the regime in its claims that the protests are somehow being organized by foreign powers.

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