Iranian Protests

Iranian Protests
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Update from AIJAC

Update 1/18 #01

This Update looks at the implications of current Iranian protests.

We lead with Iranian-American Ray Takeyh’s article “The Islamic Republic of Iran is doomed” in Politico Magazine. Takeyh is a former United States Department of State official, and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Takeyh believes that the situation in Iran is likely to get far worse before it gets better.  He writes, “Should it survive, the Iranian theocracy will not be the same, with the principal casualty of this week being the presidency of Hassan Rouhani. As the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his hardline disciples assess their predicament, they are likely to hunker down and insist on more repression at home.” To read his article,  CLICK HERE.

Another analysis on the Iranian protests by Maj. Omer Carmi, IDF, published by the Washington Institute “Rouhani’s protest paradox”, argues that the protests are a wake up call for the President Rouhani as it could “require him to understand that there is a tradeoff between Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and its desire for economic improvement.”  Carmi writes, “The international community could foster this state of mind by emphasizing to him—in public and private—that many businesses will remain gun-shy about engaging with Tehran as long as it continues its malign behavior abroad and its development of ballistic missiles. Amid the chants of angry protestors, such a message might resound more clearly in the halls of Rouhani’s presidential residence than ever before.” To read the article CLICK HERE.

Meanwhile, writing in the Jerusalem Post, human rights observer and journalist and Iranian exile Ramyar Hassani identifies the difference between the Green Protests of 2009, which were led by the middle class, and the current wave of protests, which has represented a rebellion of the vast working-class, largely on economic grounds. According to Hassani, while protests have calmed as the Iranian regime has predictably moved to placate the masses by dropping prices of household and food items and other measures, it’s unclear whether the lull is temporary. “According to all of the evidence,” Hassani writes, “Iran’s ruling establishment is as fragile as eggshells.” To read the article, CLICK HERE.

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Article1

The Islamic Republic of Iran Is Doomed

By Ray Takeyh

Politico, January 2, 2018

The protests sweeping Iran belie the once popular notion that the spirit of the Green Revolution that nearly toppled the Islamic Republic in 2009 has been extinguished. It is possible that an Islamist regime with little compunction about killing its own citizens will survive this latest challenge to its authority. Should it survive , the Iranian theocracy will not be the same, with the principal casualty of this week being the presidency of Hassan Rouhani. As the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his hardline disciples assess their predicament, they are likely to hunker down and insist on more repression at home.

Rouhani, a long-time functionary of the regime, ran a cynical and subversive presidential campaign in 2017. Facing a formidable hardline opponent in Ebrahem Raisi, Rouhani spent much of his reelection campaign castigating official corruption and even alluded to one of the regime’s darkest chapters, the mass murder of political prisoners in summer of 1988. He promised rapid economic growth, a human rights charter and an accountable government free of graft. Rouhani who as one the stalwarts of the regime had participated in all of its previous acts of repression, particularly the student uprisings of 1999 and the Green revolt of 2009, had no intention of enacting such sweeping reforms. This was cheap politics that led to popular disaffection and finally the nationwide protest we’re seeing now. His presidency is all but crippled as he has lost the confidence of both the public and the conservative oligarchs who abjure all reform as a dangerous pathway to the regime’s collapse.

As Rouhani’s presidency lingers, Khamenei and the hardliners are likely to use their commanding institutional power to finally impose their vision of pristine Islamist rule. In their eyes, both reformers and centrists stand suspect today as their promises have only provoked popular insurrections. Iran’s conservatives are imbued with an ideology that views the essential purpose of the state as the realization of God’s will on Earth. Such an exalted task mandates the assumption of power not by tentative moderates but devout revolutionaries. Given such ideological inclinations, the hardliners are utterly contemptuous of democratic accountability and are unconcerned about their loss of popularity and widespread dissatisfaction with theocratic rule. The legitimacy of state does not rest on the collective will but on a mandate from heaven. From this point, Iran’s elections are likely to be even more circumscribed with all but Khamenei’s loyalists prevented from running for office. The Revolutionary Guards, a paramilitary force that answers to the supreme leader, will be more empowered as they are the last guardians of the theocracy. Iran will move into one of its darker ages, with escalating repression, censorship and the imposition of onerous cultural strictures.

Nor is this anachronistic vision limited to political organization. For years Khamenei has insisted on a “resistance economy” that would wean itself of oil experts, seek to protect domestic industries from overseas competition, avoid trade with the West in favor of local markets and keep its funds out of international banks. Rouhani had sought to rely on foreign investments to regenerate the economy, a policy always distrusted by a supreme leader suspicious of the West and enchanted by notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. For the hardliners, integration into the global economy is a trap that could unleash liberalizing forces that would overwhelm their regime and threaten their divine experiment. Iran’s austere economy is unlikely to raise the people’s standards of living, but the revolution can only survive in isolation from the West.

Even though Iran’s relentless imperialism is denounced by the protesters who do not want to see their nation’s assets wasted in Arab civil wars, the hardliners aren’t likely to change course. This was always a revolution without a border, and given the collapse of the regional state system, the Islamic Republic sees unique opportunities to project its power. Tehran is too proud of its Hezbollah protégé in Lebanon, too invested in the Syrian civil war and too involved in the murky politics of Iraq to dispense with foreign adventurism just because it is becoming a financial burden. Imperialism has always been tempting to revolutionaries despite the fact that its costs usually outweigh its benefits. The revamped conservative regime in Iran is likely to be even more aggressive in enabling its allies.

All this spells doom for the Republic of Virtue. The Islamic Republic is entering a period of prolonged transition where it will no longer be able to proffer a theocracy with a human face. The reformists who once exhilarated the public with their quest to harmonize Islamic injunctions with democratic norms have long been cast aside. Rouhani, who was to refurbish the regime’s battered legitimacy in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, has become a victim of the rising expectations that he cynically stimulated. The gap between state and society has never been wider, as the public seeks a responsive democracy while the theocracy’s diminishing cadre insist on even more repressive and isolated government. Revolutionaries who eschew reform and condemn pragmatism as sinful diversion from the path of God are destined for the dustbin of history. In the end, Iran’s revolution is an impossible one, as it created a theocracy that cannot reform itself and accommodate the aspirations of its restless and youthful citizens. The tragedy of Ali Khamenei is that in consolidating his revolution, he is ensuring the eventual demise of his regime.

Ray Takeyh is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Article 2

Rouhani’s Protest Paradox

Maj. Omer Carmi, IDF
 

Washington Institute, January 8, 2018

During his 2017 reelection campaign, Hassan Rouhani portrayed himself as Iran’s best hope for economic recovery, sporting slogans such as “Freedom, Security, Peace, and Progress” while promising to promote “justice and reforms.” Rouhani even attacked the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claiming that improvements could only be achieved if “groups with security and political backing” refrained from interfering in the economy.

Yet President Rouhani’s actions since then suggest that he is not keeping his campaign promises. Over the past few months, he has softened his tone on the IRGC, failed to appoint female ministers to his cabinet, and selected controversial figure Mansour Gholami, a former university president who has relations with the conservative camp, as minister of science—a post highly valued by reformists because it supervises the country’s universities. As a result, Rouhani has suffered harsh criticism from prominent reformist figures for “shifting to the right” of the political map.

The current demonstrations therefore represent an acute challenge for Rouhani. Some of the protestors have chanted slogans directly against him, even calling for his death. More generally, they have centered their demonstrations around corruption and poverty—two issues that Rouhani promised to alleviate during his campaign.

ROUHANI’S RESPONSE TO PAST PROTESTS

In summer 1999, the Iranian regime faced widespread protests following the closure of a reformist newspaper that had criticized the leadership on human rights issues. The demonstrators were mostly middle-class students with a reformist orientation, and their efforts to highlight the lack of basic freedoms in Iran included chanting slogans against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The regime responded harshly, killing six students and detaining more than a thousand in only six days.

At the time, Rouhani was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, a major player in Iran’s security establishment, so he presumably took part in the decisionmaking process leading to the crackdown. On the day the protests ended, he addressed a pro-regime gathering and accused the demonstrators of serving a “foreign plot” aimed at toppling the regime. In his words, “The enemy launched an onslaught on the foundation stone of the Revolution’s patriarchal structure…and attacked the sacred sanctity of velayat-e faqih [referring to the doctrine granting the Supreme Leader his all-encompassing authority].” He then claimed that offending this principle was equal to “offending the entire nation,” and warned that arrested rioters would be tried for being “enemies of the state” and “corrupt on earth”—crimes punishable by death. According to some reports, Rouhani later explained that he could not have done anything else because he was in the government at the time.

In other instances during his years on the council, Rouhani placed gag orders on reformist newspapers and took various measures to limit public criticism of the regime. When asked about such policies in 2002, he argued that there is a difference between “freedom” and “shambles,” emphasizing that all Iranians must follow the law. He repeated the same logic years later when asked why he remained silent during the Green Movement, arguing that those demonstrators were obligated to act within the limits of the law and calling the movement “seditious” in 2011.

SITTING ON THE FENCE SO FAR

Since the latest protests broke out, Rouhani seems to be following the regime’s talking points. In a recorded speech on December 31, he argued that “the people are completely free to criticize and express their protests,” but only in a way that “would lead to the betterment of public life and the country’s situation.” He went on to reiterate his basic “law and order” mindset by arguing that criticism is “different from violence,” and that disaffected Iranians should find a “correct, legal, and logical way” to voice their criticism. Otherwise, he said, the protests will be “false” and “please the enemies.”

Rouhani’s advisors followed in his footsteps by suggesting the prospect of reforms while warning against any attempt to destabilize Iran. One advisor, Hesamodin Ashna, published a Twitter poll asking the public if they were willing to cease the protests in return for a new plan of action to meet their demands (despite the obvious unreliability of online polls, it bears mentioning that nearly 60 percent of 17,500 voters said no). And senior advisor Akbar Torkan noted that although the government should indeed take steps to combat corruption, the United States and Israel were eager “to take advantage of the protests.”

Such rhetoric might work for Rouhani in the short term, particularly if the protests decline. But if they persist or intensify, or if the regime adopts a harsher response, he will be forced to face a dilemma. On the one hand, he is the president of Iran and therefore cautious not to make any moves that might shake the foundations of its government. After all, he has been an integral part of the Islamic Republic since the days of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, serving as an air force commander, deputy speaker of parliament, and numerous other key roles. Above all, he seeks to preserve the core concepts and goals of the Islamic Republic, even though he sometimes takes a more pragmatic path toward doing so than others in the regime.

On the other hand, Rouhani was elected under the promise of moderation, reform, human rights, and, most important, economic recovery. The current dissent in the streets erupted in large part because of his inability to address the latter promise—in fact, some would argue that the high expectations he and his advisors have encouraged since the nuclear deal contributed to the public’s deep disappointment. Accordingly, if the regime cracks down forcefully and he cooperates, he would likely lose some support even among his core constituents.

EMPHASIZING THE TRADE-OFF ROUHANI FACES

Although the Supreme Leader remains Iran’s ultimate decisionmaker, Rouhani can still use his limited influence to affect Khamenei’s calculus—especially if his messages are echoed by the Iranian public, as seemed to happen with the nuclear issue. No matter how the protests turn out, they will serve as a wakeup call for the president. Going forward, he may finally realize that the economy is in need of urgent recovery, and that failure to achieve that goal will spur a new wave of protests, likely more intense than the current round. To begin this recovery, he may decide to make tough decisions on economic reforms that will hurt major actors in the Iranian system.

Rouhani might also seek to jumpstart the economy by attracting more foreign companies and investments to Iran. Yet this would require him to understand that there is a tradeoff between Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and its desire for economic improvement. The international community could foster this state of mind by emphasizing to him—in public and private—that many businesses will remain gun-shy about engaging with Tehran as long as it continues its malign behavior abroad and its development of ballistic missiles. Amid the chants of angry protestors, such a message might resound more clearly in the halls of Rouhani’s presidential residence than ever before.

Of course, Khamenei may still reject any pleas from Rouhani about foreign adventurism and missiles. The Supreme Leader is a fierce hardliner who believes in the concept of “exporting the revolution,” so even if he is persuaded to allow economic reforms (a move whose major effects would only be felt in the long run, not in the short term), he will be reluctant to decrease support for Iran’s network of proxies abroad. In that case, foreign pressure could help convince Rouhani that he should use his limited presidential tools to impede certain IRGC activities in the region. These tools include decreasing defense budget allocations, using his control over the Defense Ministry to hinder cooperation with the IRGC, and stepping up his occasional public criticism of the IRGC. This approach might not completely change Iran’s behavior in the region, but it could challenge some of the plans that leaders of the IRGC-Qods Force likely have for the Middle East.

Omer Carmi, a former visiting military fellow at The Washington Institute, has led analytical and research efforts in the Israel Defense Forces pertaining to Middle East and national security issues.

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Article 3

Iranian regime, fragile as eggshells

By Ramyar Hassani

Jerusalem Post, January 10, 2018 

Tehran has reached the conclusion that this time a mere one or two days of pro-government demonstrations cannot extinguish the fire lit by the excessive pressures imposed on public.
As is traditional among ayatollahs, the current protests in Iran have been labeled as designed and supported by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. And as with any other protests in which people demand their basic rights, one side accused the other or not fulfilling their duties. This time it was hardliners who accused the so-called moderates.

Undoubtedly, what Tehran is failing to manage is an entire country plunged into a dark abyss of corruption and misery.

The labyrinth of proxies maintained by the Islamic Republic and the chasm of oligarchs’ pockets are costing so much that the toil of the Iranian working class cannot even provide basic food and shelter for their families.

This time, a new element has been added to the whole equation: it is not only the middle class university students and a group of elites that organized these protests, put on their masks not to be identified, and gushed into the streets. This time, the spurt of protesters is formed of the working class, who has nothing left to lose. The working class whose share of the pie goes to proxy wars and wrong-doers abroad.

It has been many days in row that the government has been organizing pro-government demonstrations. This level of continuity of such demonstrations is unusual, even during the anniversary of the revolution.

These pro-government demonstrations carry a clear message, one anyone who grew up in Iran knows by heart. There are no pro-government demonstration on this scale that are organic. In fact, if you work in any government sector, say a school, your absence from such pro-government protests means reprimand, and in some cases unemployment.

However, there is another message here, a new one: Tehran has reached the conclusion that this time a mere one or two days of pro-government demonstrations cannot extinguish the fire lit by the excessive pressures imposed on public.

It is worth mentioning that the protests have calmed somewhat, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government has started in on the usual deception, used in Iran for over three decades to calm people down: the marriage loan increased to 15 million tomans, the prices of some household and food items have been decreased and stabilized, and the officials call protesters’ demands legitimate on the one hand while reminding them what their fate could be through arresting and executing a couple of protesters.

Surely, any fundamental change in Iran depends on its people and the best way is an uprising, but one must bear in mind that such brutal establishments are not going to fall easily when they are supported by regional or international powers. Syria is a very good example; despite a nationwide uprising Assad’s regime is still there because of the support from Iran and Russia.

Whether the protests will be continued and eventually topple the Vilayat-e Faqih or not remains unclear and it depends on a variety of issues.

Iran’s regime is not a weak one to be easily toppled by organic protests. Plus, the Iran of 2017 is very different to the Iran of 1979.

Even if the military joins the people, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which controls almost all of the important sites, brigades and armed institutions, will not give up. So, even the organic protests will at some point need support of other groups or else the IRGC will create a bloodbath and continue spilling innocent blood until they win over the people.

As well, it is true that the people do start revolutions, but to succeed, the leadership gap must be filled. Almost all of the different ethnic groups in Iran share the same problem of lacking unity and leadership.

In any case of a regime change the issue of leadership might lead the country into absolute chaos. For instance, while the majority of Persians are united in denying any form of territorial partitioning of Iran, they are divided into many factions among themselves; simultaneously, the majority of the Kurds do not want to stay within a new Iran, but lack a strong force and unity among themselves, which is vital to attain the rights of the Kurdish people, one of which is walking the path of independence.

However, the recent protests have had a different impact on those enduring the Iranian regime’s harshness, both direct and indirect, in an everyday struggle. While the protests in 2009 were organized by middle class university students and directed by the political elite of the “Green Movement,” the recent ones were organized by people themselves. This time, it was the working class who rushed into the streets demanding the very basic rights of a human being. This time, the foundations of the regime were shaken by empty-handed working class Iranians, furious as a result of the announcement of an unfair budget – including hundreds of millions of dollars for the ayatollah’s institutions, and none for the survivors of the natural disasters, skyrocketing prices of basic household and food items, i.e. the price of eggs.

So, according to all of the evidence Iran’s ruling establishment is as fragile as eggshells.

The author has worked as human rights observer and journalist in Colombia, Iraq and Greece. In the past three years he has been working with refugees in Greece. Born in Iranian Kurdistan, he was exiled and now lives in Norway. 

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