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What Israeli Intel Really Thinks About the Iran Protests

Tens of thousands of Iranians breached barriers of fear and have taken to the streets, but the regime hasn't yet responded in full force

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An attack on Iran police station in Qahdarijan, Iran, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018
An attack on Iran police station in Qahdarijan, Iran, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018Credit: /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Six days into the wave of protests that is shaking Iran, Israeli and Western intelligence services are still hesitant to provide an answer to the main question that is keeping their political masters busy: Do these new circumstances present a window of opportunity for the first time since the failed Green Revolution in 2009 to bring down the Iranian regime?

The information coming out of Iran is still too fragmented to provide a clear picture. The government is disrupting access to the messaging app Telegram, which protesters used at the beginning to coordinate their moves. At the same time, internet traffic in Iran has been lagging, even though those opposed to the Islamic regime have managed to find ways to bypass this problem to a certain extent.

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But as time goes by, a few aspects of the protests are becoming clearer according to Israeli and Western intelligence services’ analyses.

Tens of thousands of people have participated in the demonstrations. The numbers are still nowhere near the hundreds of thousands who took part in the Green Revolution protests, but those demonstrations were concentrated in Tehran and led by students and the middle class. This time, the protests began mostly with the lower classes and have spread throughout almost all of Iran to many distant towns that the regime now finds difficult to control. It seems that for a significant group of people, the barrier of fear has been breached – something that did not happen in the past and prevented similar action since the brutal repression of the protests nearly nine years ago.

The high cost of living may have been the original motivation for people to take to the streets, but it is far from the only one. The anger against rising prices has added to the accumulating despair of young people who are educated yet unemployed. In the background is a long-time bitterness for a large part of the Iranian public over the Islamic regime’s strict enforcement of religious laws. The most remarkable visual emblem of the protests so far – and their escalation will certainly bear other symbols – is the video clip in which a young woman removes her head covering in the middle of a demonstration and waves it in the air.

The Iranian government’s efforts to set in motion and finance the export of the Islamic revolution to other countries has created great anger among the public. In a few cases, protesters were filmed burning pictures of General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who has been lauded as a national hero after the defeat of the Islamic State and the successes of the Assad regime in the civil war in Syria. Raising the prices of eggs and gas at a time when Iran is providing billions of dollars in aid to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been the focus of the protesters’ anger.

As of Tuesday evening, the Iranian regime still has not used its full force to put down the protests. It appears that like the foreign intelligence agencies, the Iranian authorities had not predicted the timing of the breakout of public fury. Even though the regime responded violently in a number of cities, and about 20 people have been reported killed so far, it is far from the aggressive means used to quell the 2009 protests. It looks as if the regime is still in the containment stage and has yet to loosen the reins on its offensive forces.

This is also due to Iranian foreign policy: The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his circle are still very worried about U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to cancel the nuclear deal. To repulse Trump, the Iranians need the Europeans. The European Union may have remained silent so far in response to the killing of protesters – which is morally grating – but using more force could well lead to new complaints about human rights violations and complicate Iran’s situation vis-a-vis the Europeans.

The sanctions are still important. The ones imposed by the United States at the beginning of this decade hurt the Iranian economy and forced the leadership in Tehran to agree to the nuclear deal, which delayed the Iranian nuclear program. The accumulated damage from the sanctions can still be felt, and it is impeding the rebound capabilities of the Iranian economy.

For now, Trump has expressed his support for the protesters in an almost incidental manner in his tweets, between his fights with the media and his efforts to take credit – for instance, for commercial aviation safety since he took office. But a reconsideration of the sanctions because of Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and human rights violations could provide a real tailwind for the protesters.

There is even a bonus as far as Trump is concerned: This is exactly what the Obama administration did not do in 2009, when it watched somewhat apathetically from a distance as the Green Revolution collapsed. And for now, Israel is still not in the picture.

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