In late December 2017 and in January 2018, massive protests erupted throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. The largest countrywide uprising since 2009 started in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and a few towns on December 28, and spread to some 142 cities and towns in all 31 provinces at a shocking pace.
The uprising was prompted by runaway prices of some of the most basic staples, such as eggs, but became political in a matter of just a few hours.
On the morning of December 29, protests emerged in the western city of Kermanshah, the center of the province of Kermanshah,which was struck by an earthquake in November. It quickly became evident that what was happening was more significant than a short-lived protest – limited to a particular region of the country – but rather a reflection of deeper, more profound anti-regime sentiments.
Unsurprisingly, the Tehran responded to the rebellion, as it did in 2009, with brutality. According to official figures, 22 protesters were killed, but according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, some 50 protesters were killed and a member of the mullahs’ parliament cited the head of the Prisons Organization and said that they had registered 4,972 arrests. The opposition put the number of detainees at 8,000 but there are indications that this may be a somewhat conservative estimate. As of the date of this writing, at least 14 protesters have been identified as having been killed in detention.
After two weeks of relative calm, more than a dozen Iranian cities were again scenes of protests on January 31 and February 1, with similar slogans that rejected the regime in its entirety.In the meantime, the world has witnessed a steady stream of protests and strikes by laborers and victims of theft and fraud by state institutions. The extraordinary resilience demonstrated by the Iranian people suggests that protests could reoccur relatively quickly, and perhaps more forcefully.
A careful review of the evidence clearly indicates that the protests were not a short-lived phenomenon with temporary impact. Rather, they marked a turning point and permanent change in the trend of events and political calculations in Iran.
This is significant in various ways.
Iran has historically been an enigma for Western powers and for Washington in particular. In this sense, the protests were significant for the future of Iran.
But from a geo-political perspective, the impact and consequence of major political developments in Iran transcend the country’s borders. In recent history, the region is still reeling from the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran in 1979, subsequent to deposing the country’s monarchy.
Perceptions among Iran watchers in the West prior to protests
It is safe to say that the protests caught most experts and Iran analysts in the West by surprise. This is reflected in less than accurate analyses of the realities on the ground during the uprising, as well widespread assessments of the situation inside Iran.
The below assumptions comprised a conventional wisdom regarding Iran and its future prior to the protests that was promoted for years by Tehran’slobbyists and apologists in the West:
- The Iranian regime enjoys the support of the population, in particular the urban poor and the lower class that served as the backbone of the Iranian Revolution and comprised the main social base of the clerical rule. It stemmed from the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, had ascended to power with the slogan of supporting the Mostazafin or the deprived.
- The regime in Tehran is stable and strong enough to support interference in the affairs of other countries in the region and, as such, it should be treated as a rising regional player with significant sway.
- Tehran has been able to suppress all dissent, and opposition is limited to exiles with little to no influence on the current state of affairs inside the country and with no appeal to the youth who comprise the majority in Iran.
- The Iranian political landscape is defined by a contest between “moderates” and “hardliners” and the outcome of this contest will determine the future of Iran. The West is well served by propping up the “moderates” and allaying their concerns to neutralize the hardliners.
- The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is in full control. They have restructured on a provincial basis and geared up to prevent popular uprisings.
- The nuclear agreement and the cash windfall that resulted from sanctions relief improved the welfare of the average Iranian and provided a capital gain for the “moderates.”
- JCPOA will gradually lead to a change of behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But another school of thought stressed that:
- The clerics are isolated at home and are loathed by the Iranians, in particular by the youth. People are waiting for the first opportunity to express their wrath.
- The foreign interventions and wars are not signs of strength. Rather they are taking a big toll on the regime and are maintainedto cover up the shortcomings and failures at home.
- When it comes to major issues there is not much difference between the various factions and the regime is neither capable nor willing to get engage in any meaningful moderation.
In the major annual international rally of the opposition in Paris on July 1, 2017, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said: “The light of change is shining on Iran. The ruling regime is in disarray and paralyzed as never before. Iranian society is simmering with discontent and the international community is finally getting closer to the reality that appeasing the ruling theocracy is misguided.
These observations speak to three fundamental truths related to obtaining freedom and liberty in Iran, as well as peace and tranquility in the region:
- First, the overthrow of the ruling religious dictatorship is an imperative.
- Second, the regime’s overthrow is within reach.
- And third, a democratic alternative and an organized resistance exists which is capable of toppling the theocracy in Iran.
Protests proved the assumptions pushed by Tehran’s apologists to be totally devoid of any bearing in reality and the second school of thought to be more attuned to realities on the ground.
Root causes of the Iran uprising
A correct assessment of the roots of the uprising is of paramount importance in making a good prediction of their future.
The first protest was prompted by a sudden increase in the price of some of the most basic staples, particularly eggs, and by the announcement of a projected major increase in fuel costs. But, the protests quickly took a political tone and quickly came to target the regime in its entirety.
In reality, the protests were the result of several factors and the culmination of the regime’s failures in several key areas over the years.
In the area of economics, despite the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars under the nuclear agreement, there is total stagnation and the public has not witnessed any benefits. In recent years the private sector has been very much squeezed out. According to reliable estimates, organizations and institutions under the control of Khamenei, which include the IRGC, now control over 50% of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Inflation is still in double digits, while unemployment is staggering . This is even worse in towns and smaller cities, where according to some reports unemployment among the youth is as high as 50 percent. Iranian state media is riddled with stories of young people with PhDs or Masters Degrees from some of the country’s best universities who have to drive taxis or work as dishwashers in order to make ends meet.
On priorities, a recent review of the official budget indicated that its allocations for the IRGC and suppressive forces are several times more than allocations for the most basic social needs such as public health and education. According to one study, Iran’s total health care budget for 2018 is $16.3 billion, which is a third of its total war budget. The costs of wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which is up to tens of billions of dollars, as well as financing a range of extremist groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon, has taken a toll on the Iranian economy and the welfare of Iranians. In other words, Tehran’s strategic policies and priorities have had direct impact on the Iranian economy and have become totally intertwined with it.
Little noticed in the West has been the failure in the past few years of a series of major financial institutions affiliated with the IRGC. Millions of middle class and lower income Iranians were lured toinvest in government–affiliated and sanctioned institutions that promised high returns. The institutions were allowed to gamble or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the IRGC and/or other investment funds in the Iranian state. The funds, life savings for many depositors, were either embezzled or diverted to the regime’s priorities. The bankruptcy of these intuitions, known as “mal-baakhtegan” or “property losers”, impacted millions of Iranians and has been steering public unrest for the past couple of years.
A number of the regime’s main banks face bankruptcy,mainly because of bad loans provided to the regime’s senior officials or their trade partners without any guarantee or collateral. Mohammad Reza Bahonr, a former Vice-speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) said on February 1, “A number of our main banks are on the verge of bankruptcy. Let’s pray the Lord that their bottom will not fall out since in reality these banks are in the red.”
Corruption has become so rampant and systematic that hardly a day goes by without a story of embezzlement of mammoth proportions being exposed in the state-run press. The problem is so acute that Supreme Leader Khamenei described it as a “seven headed dragon” in his speech on February 8.
Nepotism is as its peak. The term “Aghazadeh” (son of Agha or noble born) has been a colloquialism in Iran since 1990s,describing the children of elites who emerge as men of means and influence by way of nepotism and corruption. In 2017, the term “good genes” was introduced in the Iranian parlance and became synonymous with the privilege that the children of the elite, notably the sons and grandsons of senior ayatollahs and senior government officials, or Aghazadehs, enjoy.
The protests, of course, expressed the public’s rage over the mullahs’ plundering of their wealth. Poverty, unemployment, and class differences have inspired it. But the protests were not limited to demands for necessities of life and were not a spontaneous and sudden upheaval by the hungry. Rather, they had clear and distinct social and political elements.
Iran is suffocating from social and political repression, lack of the most basic freedoms, and systematic institutional discrimination and nepotism have pervaded the regime. As such, the protests were also for freedom and popular sovereignty to establish social justice and prosperity.
In other words, the protests were the culmination and convergence of years of the ill-fated policies and priorities of the regime with deep-rooted causes. Several factors had simply postponed the eruption of these crises. The reality caught up with the ayatollahs.
Characteristics and features of the protests
The span and rapid expansion of the protests was quite remarkable. In a few days, they spread to 142 cities inall 31 provinces of Iran, and no major city in Iran was spared. By comparison, the protests in 2009 were mainly limited to Tehran and a number of major cities. Tellingly, in 2018, confrontation between the protesters and the security forces were most fierce in some of the smaller cities and towns including and not limited to Izeh (Khuzestan Province), Touyserkan (Hamadan Province) and Shahinshar (Isfahan Province).
Not only did the protests begin in the holy city of Mashhad, but also some of the strongest slogans on the first days of the protests were chanted in Qom, the other Iranian holy city. These two cities traditionally were perceived to be bastions of clerical rule. The vast geography of the protests not only indicated the general sentiment throughout Iran, but from a security standpoint, it forced the regime to spread its forces and made it impossible to concentrate on major cities by amassing its forcesin a handful of locations to prevent the protests taking place.
The overwhelming majority of those engaged in the uprising were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds, i.e. people who were tired of their circumstances and angry at the regime for ignoring their wellbeing and denying their humanity. In other words, unlike the 2009 protests that were primarily comprised of middle class people, in 2018 the protesters were from “armies of the hungry and the unemployed.” They clearly repudiated Tehran’s claims of enjoying a broad base of social support in general andthe claims by the mullahs’ spin doctors about their popularity among the impoverished in particular.
The mullahs’ claim that they are “defenders of the abased” was totally discredited. The abased cried out in the streets: “People must beg while the supreme leader lives like a God.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University Professor who is an advocate of the “reformers” in Iran, said in an interview on February 17, “The 2009 protests showed that the system has difficulties with the people who reside north of Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue. The problem was with office workers, writers, university students, medical doctors…. But the protests in January 2018 were much more dangerous for the system. I believe those who came out were from south of Enghelab Avenue.”
People from all walks of life and social strata took part in the protests,and young men and women, particularly those who are called “Dahe haftadi” (those have been born in 1990s) played a key role. “Those who chanted those slogans, chanted against the regime, most of them were Dahe Haftadi.”Zibakalam acknowledged. (Dahe Hafadi is the term used in Iran to refer to those who have been born in 1990s).By the regime’s own estimates, 50 percent of those who were detained were between the ages of 19 and 25, and 27 percent were between 25 and 32.
The 2009 protests began and were initiated due to a rift in the leadership of the regime, specifically over the fate of the disputed elections, expressed with slogans like “where is my vote?”. The disenchanted population used the fissure to express its frustrations. Yet, what seemed to be a blessing at the onset turned out to be a majorweakness of the protest movement. As the public slogans became more radical and targeted the leadership of the regime and challenged the regime in its entirety, the individuals who appeared to be the leaders ofthe uprisingbecame more inclined to cut a deal with the status quo and at one point simply abated the movement and the public demands. In 2018, the uprising was not a byproduct of an internal power struggle. To the contrary, it wasa nail in the coffin of the myth of moderation.
From the outset, protesters’ slogans – which included chants of ‘down with Rouhani’ and ‘down with Khamenei’ – demonstrated an outright rejection of the status quo and the regime in its entirety. The slogan ‘no to reformer, no to hardliner, this game is over’ expressed a new awareness that differences between political factions in Iran are distinctions without a difference. The protests showed that the people of Iran detest both regime factions and want it to be overthrown in its entirety.
The protests propelled a new player into the Iranian political landscape: the people’s power. Very quickly it became evident that the demarcation was between the people on one side and the regime on the other.
Slogans like ‘no to Lebanon, no to Gaza, my life for Iran’ demonstrated that the people are rejecting the regime’s regional interference in addition to its domestic policy. (A full analysis of the slogans is provided below.)
Subsequent to 2009, in order to prevent a popular uprising, the IRGC had restructured and one division was designated to control each province (with the exception of Tehran,where two divisions were devoted for its control). Yet, the speed in the movement’s expansion overwhelmed the IRGC and it could not prevent or contain the unrelenting, pervasive, and geographically widespread protests for more than 10 days. This is despite the fact that after the second day, there was no element of surprise and virtually all the details of the protests including locations and times were announced in advance on social media.
It seems the myth of the invincibility of the IRGC has been proven false.
Though the protests began over increased prices for staple items such as eggs, not a single shop or private commercial entity was attacked. Rather, suppressive centers, government buildings, and offices of the Friday prayer leaders – the very institutions that push the regime’s extremist, fundamentalist agenda – were targeted.
By some assessments, the “moderate” faction was the bigger loser in a sense that it became quite evident that they enjoy neither popular base and appeal nor political sway. When the former President Mohammad Khatami, who has been touted by some observers as a champion of “moderation” in the past decades, said “the youth who chanted harsh slogans were not ‘barandaz’ (the person who seeks the regime’s overthrow), rather they were simply protesting for their grievances,” the Iranian youth repudiated him fiercely in social media to a point that #براندازم (I am a barandaz) was rewetted more than 30,000 times in less than 24 hours.
Social media played a key role in organizing and also in making the activists aware of developments and status in other locations, towns and cities. As of July 2017, there were 48 million smart phones in Iran, a country of 80 million people.
Telegram is the king of messaging apps/social media in Iran with more than 40 million users. (Telegram has about 100 million users worldwide.) According to government statistics, there are more than 586,000 Persian Telegram channels and in an average day more than 3 million messages are exchanged in these channels. The young people – undeterred by the regime’s brutality – used technology to mobilize the masses, open new fronts, and fight back, and the IRGC was stretched to contain the protests.
The role of women was quite dramatic and remarkable. Indeed, women have borne the brunt of repression for the 39 years of the mullahs’ rule. The compulsory veil, as well as subjugation and humiliation of women for failing to observe the veil, are among the most important means for the regime to impose repression on society.
The video clips coming from Iran showed that women wereat the forefront in many scenes and took the lead in charging at the security forces. A scene of a young woman standing at arm’s length from the guards and security forces in Hamedan and shouting in their faces “Death to Khamenei,” went viral on social media.
There were signs of alarm and concern even inside the IRGC and Bassij militia, on which the regime relies for its survival.A number of members of the Bassij burned their membership cards during the days of the uprising and joined the protesters.Some of the people killed by the regime’s forces during the protests were from Bassiji families.
Reaction in 2018 was very different than 2009, particularly where the U.S. is concerned.In 2009,President Obama remained very much indifferent to the protests while reaching out to the ayatollahs and hoping for a nuclear agreement. This was despite explicit calls by protesters who chanted, “Obama, Obama, either with them (i.e. ayatollahs) or with us.” But the Trump administration was emphatic in its support for the protesters and their demands from the moment it appeared that the protests represented a serious force and a challenge to the ayatollahs. President Trump in his State of Union address stated, “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”
It appears the wall of fear in Iranian cities suffered cracks. This can be seen in the audacity and bravery of the young protesters and the continuation of protests by different sectors of society demanding their rights and welfare. Le Monde, the prominent French daily wrote in an article on March 3, 2018, “In Iran the fear has changed camp and the people are no longer fearful of the regime.”
The protesters’ slogans and the new choice
It is impossible to hold an opinion poll in a country like Iran,especially where it pertains to sensitive issues such as anti-government protests and the sentiment of the protesters. But one measure for assessingthe prevailing mood and sentiments of the protests is analysis of the slogans that are chanted. The most striking slogans which put an end to a long misguided perception in the West was, “reformists, hardliners, the game is over.” According to Zibakalam people have passed both the reformists and hardliners. This slogan symbolizes a new era in Iran’s political landscape. The choice in Iran is no longer “moderate” or “hardliners” but the ruling regime or regime change.
A review showed that some 130 slogans were used in the recent protests. While a number of them were used sporadically and in a few towns or cities, some including ‘Down with Khamenei,’ ‘Down with Rouhani,’ or ‘Down with the dictator’, were chanted in almost all the cities and towns that were the scenes of protests
There were 12 slogans such as ‘Down with the clerical regime,’ ‘We are determined to overthrow the regime,’ and ‘This is the last message, the goal is to bring down the regime,’ that called for the overthrow of the regime in its entirety.
Fourteen slogans such as ‘Khamenei is a killer, his rule is illegitimate’, ‘Khamenei be ashamed, abdicate power,’‘Seyed-Ali, it is time to go’ (referring to the first name of Khamenei), and “Down with Rouhani,’ targeted the leaders of the regime and both factions.
Eleven slogans emphasized patriotism and rejected the regime’s strategic policies, in particular meddling in affairs of other countries. Among them were ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us,’ ‘Down with Hezbollah,’ ‘No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran,’ and ‘Dignified Iranian, support, support.’
Eight of the slogans,including ‘We will fight to wrest back our country Iran’ and ‘Either death or freedom,’ referred to continuity of the protests.
One telling aspect of the slogans was that despite the protests taking place in several ethnic areas of Iran, including Kurdistan (northwest) and Balouchistan (southeast), there were no ethnic slogans and all were in tandem with the rest of the country, targeting the regime in its entirety. Many slogans emphasized the notion of Iran and the protesters’ affection for a unified Iranian identity.
Role of the opposition: Were the protests organized?
There are a number of significant issues surrounding the question of the protests’ leadership.
The prospects for repressing and containing a leaderless movement are much better, particularly for a regime like the one ruling in Iran that has shown no hesitancy in using brute force against its demanding citizenry. On the other hand, the chances of success are much higher for a movement that has established leadership and a clear plan. This factor is also significant so far as it pertains to the future course of events and providing an alternative to the status quo.
A key question was about the role of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mujahedeen-e- Khalq (MeK).It has been a leading Iranian opposition group and its existence in the Iranian political landscape predates the clerical regime. The MeK espouses a democratic-anti fundamentalist perception of Islam and played a significant role in the opposition against the Shah that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy on February 11, 1979.
Soon after the establishment of theocracy in Iran, the MeK stood up to the new regime and rejected its constitution as undemocratic. In the summer of 1980, the MeK staged several rallies in Tehran drawing up to 150,000 people to hear Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the MeK promise to carry on the opposition to Islamist domination. It has been the primary target of the ruling fundamentalists since 1981. In the course of the past three decades, some 120,000 MeK activists from all walks of life and from all over Iran have been executed and a larger number have been incarcerated and persecuted.
In the course of the anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, many MeK supporters were arrested, and some were later executed.
Over the years, the MeK made key revelations on some of the most secret aspects of the Iranian regime’s nefarious conduct including exposing scores of the most important secret nuclear weapons sites and research facilities. The intelligence gathered by MeK operatives inside Tehran was ultimately corroborated by the UN watchdog, the IAEA.That intelligence pointed to the MEK’s network of activists including persons inside some of the most sensitive government intuitions. For anyone with the least knowledge of the Iranian regime’s modus operandi, it was evident that those operatives’ work involvedhuge risks.
While the fact that the MeK enjoyed a constant and formidable presence in Iran was irrefutable, the regime’s focus one liminating the MeK as its arch enemy has made itrather difficult to gauge the scope and extent of the MeK network.
It is somewhat easier to gauge the opposition’s appeal among the Iranian diaspora, a vibrant society of several million people. Historically, Iranians are not a migrating nation. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian diaspora is comprised of Iranians who fled Iran after the establishment of the clerical regime or were born elsewhere. Expatriates throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and even Asia are in constant contact with their homeland. Particularly in the age of communications, the mood among the Iranian diaspora is in a way reflective of the mood at home. The MEK has held massive rallies in Paris in recent years that have drawn more than 100,000 of their supporters from the world over.
In September 2016, after years of intense campaigning, the opposition was able to safely transfer its members, several thousand strong, from camps in Iraq to European countries, most notably Albania. The opposition leaders and spokespersons pointed out that the transfer, in addition to being a major humanitarian success to guarantee the safety and security of opposition members, was a major strategic achievement. They reasoned this would free up the time and resources of the organized resistance to focus on affairs inside of Iran and on expanding its social base. But outsiders did not initially pay much heed to the opposition’s assessment.
Recent MeK efforts have focused on mobilizing public opinion in Iran on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. The overwhelming majority of the victims, including juveniles and pregnant women, were MeK activists who rejected the regime’s demand to denounce their sympathy to the MeK and were executed subsequent to one or two minutes trials.
In April and May 2017, in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections, the activities entered a new phase and the MeKactivists started to systematically place big pictures of Maryam Rajavi, on major highway overpasses and onwalls beside major streets. The MeK network had engaged in similar activities in previous years but the uptick in their frequency and scope was clear. Video clips showed banners and pictures of Rajavi placed in major cities including Tehran, Mashhad, Kermanshah, Shiraz, and Hamedan, as well as in some of the smaller provincial cities. In parallel, the network became active in exposing mullah Ibrahim Raissi, one of the two leading candidates who was one of the key officials involved in the 1988 massacre in Tehran.
Given the state of repression in Iran, it has been rather impossible for the MeKor any other genuine opposition groups to have any public presence in Iran. A key question has been the MeK’s appeal among the young generation, Nasl sevomi (literally meaning the third generation), or the millennials.
A new feature of MeK events in recent years, in particular in the past two years, has been the presence and activism of the youth. Some of them are Iranians who have been born or grown up in Western countries. But more remarkable has been the presence and appearance of MeK activists who have fled Iran recently.A number of them have been incarcerated for several years and have fled Iran subsequent to their release from prison. This was a new phenomenon and a solid indicator that the MeK had made tangible strides in gaining the attention and recruiting the Iranian youth despite Tehran’s systematic and extensive demonization campaign against the MeK.
Some of the young activists had become familiar with the opposition through their relatives or immediate family. But according to their own accounts, and interviews with international media, a number of them had become acquainted to the MeK in recent years for the first time and had decided to join them. The new activists came mostly from urban middle class families but also from all over Iran. The high percentage of women among them was conspicuous.
As the protests broke out in Mashhad and a number of smaller towns on December 28, the MeK network was the first that broke the news and started sending updates and video clips from the protest scenes. Over the course of the following two weeks that the protests were at their peak, the MeKnetwork distributed around-the-clock news and clips that it received from its activists. The MeK network’s role in breaking the mullahs’ censorship was indisputable, and it persisted despite all the restrictions that Tehran imposed on the Internet and popular social media apps.
A number of MeK activists involved in organizing the protests took the risk of speaking to major international media from Tehran and from smaller towns. In one instance, Nik, a female MeK activist was interviewed by Fox News on January 10 while protesting with hundreds of relatives of detainees in front of the notorious Evin Prison in northern Tehran.
“Calls were given on our Telegram channels a few days before the demonstrations,” Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineering student from Tehran and a MeK activist told the UK’s Daily Telegraph on January 6.“We cover every protest, no matter how small. Some of the slogans that were shouted on the first day and were repeated were started by our friends on our networks,” he added.
The regime’s most senior officials repeatedly underscored the role of the MeK.
Hassan Rouhani called French President Emmanuel Macron on January 2and said the MeK was behind the protests in Iran and asked him to restrict the activities of the Iranian opposition. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition that the MeK is its biggest constituent, is headquartered outside of Paris.
In a speech on January 9, Khamenei said, “These incidents had been organized.” The MeK implemented the plans. He added, “The MeK had prepared for this months ago” and “the MeK’s media outlets had called for it.” He said the MeK was at the apex of the triangle that incited the uprising. He attributed the other two angles to foreign powers.
Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanai Rad, Political Affairs Deputy for the IRGC, provided the most detailed account of the role of the MeK. In his remarks “Role of the ‘hypocrites’ (the derogatory term used by the regime to describe MeK or PMOI) in recent uprisings” he said:
“Eighty percent of those arrested were under 30 years of age. There were several women among them, who are middle aged. In the 1980s, those who were leading MeK protests were mostly women. And now, the main chain of provocation and starting the protests were women. For example, four of these women caused the protests in the city of Ilam (western Iran). After they were detained, we realized they were not from Ilam…,”
“Similarly, those arrested in Kermanshah had come from the city of Karaj (near Tehran). Those who were from Bandar Abbas were arrested in Shiraz. These were the MeK who would go to the cities in an organized fashion and were guiding the slogans. The most radical and sacrilegious slogans, such as ‘they have used Islam as a ladder to harass the people, neither Islam, neither the Quran, let’s sacrifice both for Iran….
“This shows how much they hate Islam and political religion. Directing attacks on military centers, like assaults on the State Security Force and Bassij bases were part of the planning by the MeK. They even attacked the prisons, which means they have their hands in prisons as well.”
It is very difficult to imagine that the protests spread to 142 cities and that people chanted almost identical slogans without some sort of coordination and organization. It was telling that the protesters’ main slogans were the same as those advocated by the MeK for years.
The progress the MeK has made in recent years and remarks by the regime’s most senior officials all lead to the conclusion that the protests were not leaderless or unorganized. Rather, some sort of organization and coordination was involved and the MeK played a much more extensive and prominent role than might have been recognized from the outside.
Regarding future steps, the opposition has been advocating establishing secret centers of resistance in an attempt to unleash the potential of a disenchanted population that is willing to stand up to clerical rule, and to use the simmering situation in Iran in preparation for an uprising. It has said that practical steps includejoining together large number of individuals who are currently scattered and disconnected, and encouraging people to invite the real hope that the mullahs can be brought down.
Is Iran destined for a crisis like the one in Syria?
Tehran’s advocates have tried to scare the international community from the eruption of an internal conflict and a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Iran. But the situation in Iran is very different than Syria or other countries in the region that experiencedthe Arab Spring. In those countries, the opposition was not organized and was nascent at its best. In Iran, the opposition has a well-definedstructure, a well-known leader and a declared platform and plan for transition. It has weatheredseveralstormsin the span of more thanthree decades and has shown remarkable resilience and perseverance.
As it pertains to Syria, if it were not for the Iranian regime’s full- fledged military and financial support and the direct intervention of the IRGC and its mercenaries, the Assaddictatorship would have been ousted several years ago and the situation would have been totally different.
The road ahead: Intensified conflict between the regime and the people
Tehran is facing serious financial, political and social challenges. The policy of denying people’s demands and outcries has failed. The policy of intervention in the region has run into a deadlock and exhausted its resources. Its adverse consequences are already felt inside the country. The factors that led to the protests are still in force, even aggravated and the regime does not have the power to address and solve them.
Abbas Abdi, one of the leading thinkers of the “reformists” acknowledged on February 3 that “there is no technical solution for the Iranian society. These solutions existed in the past, but currently such solutions do not exist.” That means that tackling the web of crises facing the clerical regime requires quick, substantial, and profound reforms.
The clerical regime seems incapable of major political reform and all signs indicate that Khamenei, who has the final say, is neither willing nor capable of serious reform,least of all after major social unrest, since this might lead to quicker unraveling of the system.
Yet, there is little doubt in Tehran that the protests will reoccur. Saeed Hajarian, one of the strategists of the “reformists” acknowledged on January 24, protests are like sea waves. They recede to return stronger.”
As well as being unable to prevent the resurgence of the uprisings,the mullahs have lost their duplicitous safeguards and can only depend on the repressive apparatus.
Even Khamenei recently acknowledged the continuation of the protests. He said, “This is a battle of the nation against anti-nation, the battle of Iran against anti-Iran, and the battle of Islam against anti-Islam and it will henceforth continue.”
It can be stated unequivocally that Iranian society will not return to the conditions preceding the 2018 protests, and the clerical regime seems incapable of returning to the status quo ante regarding its balance of power vis-a vis the population.It is in a weaker position than any other time.
This means that the confrontation between the people of Iran and the ruling regime will intensify and the power struggle among the regime’s internal factions will be aggravated.
Sadegh Zibakalam described the prospect in this way: “I am fearful that in the next round… there is no way to contain these people. If this happens, this fire will burn all of us together.”
 Tehran has acknowledged that a number of prisoners have died during detention but claims they have committed suicide during detention, a claim that has strongly been rejected by the relatives of the protesters and have been questioned even by some of the regime’s own officials.
 Primary Causes of Poverty and Popular Uprisings in Iran: The Enormous Cost of the Regime’s Warmongering, Terrorism and Domestic Suppression”, Report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, January 2018
 According to Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a former Vice Speaker of the Majlis, average annual inflation rate after 1979 has been 20 percent and the unemployment has always been on double digits. (State0run Fars news agency, August 8, 2017)
 Caspian Finance and Credit Institution, www.caspianci.ir was one of the major financial institutions that was involved in this scheme.
 Enghelab Avenue is one of the main Avenues in central Tehran and in a way separates lower class people in southern part of Tehran from the more affluent residents of northern Tehran.
 According to regime officials, people attacked the offices of 60 Friday prayer leaders throughout the country.
 Breaking the Stalemate, The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, study by Mettis Analytics, a Washington, DC-based research company, March 2015.
 Farzad Madadzadeh, Shabnam Madadzadeh, Arash Mohammadi, and Paria Kohandel, were among the young MeK activists who had fled Iran in the past couple of years and appeared in public.
Public decency law puts Saudi reforms in perspective
A newly adopted Saudi law on public decency helps define Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vague notion of ‘moderate Islam.’
It also lays bare the pitfalls of his social reforms as well as his preference for hyper-nationalism rather than religion as the legitimizing ideology of his rule and his quest for control of every aspect of Saudi life.
In an indication that Prince Mohammed is walking a fine line, Saudi media reported that the government was still weighing how to implement the law almost two months after it was adopted.
“This (law) is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the (government) of allowing things to go ‘out of control’. Effecting social change is an art form — you want to push as fast as possible without provoking a counter reaction. Not easy!” Ali Shihabi, founder of Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based, pro-Saudi think-tank, told Agence France-Presse.
The law comes on the back of a series of reforms in recent years that were designed to facilitate Prince Mohammed’s plans to streamline and diversify the Saudi economy and project the crown prince as a reformer.
The reforms included the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, relaxation of gender segregation, enhancement of women’s professional opportunities, the introduction of modern forms of entertainment and the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s feared religious police.
Prince Mohammed also vowed to revert the inward-looking, ultra-conservative kingdom to a form of moderate Islam he claimed existed prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Ultimately, Prince Mohammed’s short-lived reformist image was severely tarnished by the kingdom’s devastating war in Yemen; the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the mass arrest of clerics, activists, journalists and academics; his failure to lift the kingdom’s male guardianship system; and the mushrooming number of people fleeing the kingdom, including dissidents as well as women seeking to escape repressive and abusive families.
Sparking ridicule on social media, the new law defines limits of Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and creates one more anchor for his repression of any form of dissent.
The law bans men’s shorts except for on beaches and in sports clubs. It also bans garments with questionable prints that like shorts “offend public tastes.” It forbids the taking of pictures or use of phrases that might offend public decency as well as graffiti that could be interpreted as “harmful.”
The bans packages public decency as representing Saudi “values and principles” in a nod towards Prince Mohammed’s promotion of a hyper-nationalist Saudi identity.
Yet, various of its restrictions are more in line with the kingdom’s long-standing austere interpretation of Islam while others reinforce the crown prince’s repression of anything that does not amount to an endorsement of his rule or policies.
The restrictions on clothing and this month’s closure on opening night of the kingdom’s first-ever alcohol-free ‘Halal’ disco constitute an apparent effort to cater to ultra-conservatives who oppose liberalisation of gender segregation and public religious rituals such as the muted lifting of rules that force businesses to close during prayers times.
The reforms, while significant in and of themselves, stop short of dismantling what politics scholar Brandon Ives terms ‘religious institutionalism’ or the intertwining of religion and state through a “plethora of institutions, policies, and legal codes.”
Religious institutionalism complicates Prince Mohammed’s attempt to replace religious legitimization of his rule with hyper-nationalism because of its success in fusing religion with Saudi culture.
“Religion and culture are now so intertwined in what it means to be Saudi that it is hard to separate the two,” said Eman Alhussein, author of a just published European Council of Foreign Relations report on Saudi hyper-nationalism.
As a result, some nationalists have joined religious conservatives in calling for limitations on what is deemed acceptable entertainment and media content.
Ms. Alhussein noted that some online critics were cautioning that the promotion of hyper-nationalism stripped Saudis of their values in a manner that weakens their loyalty to the regime.
“Nationalism in this increasingly strident form could eventually become a Trojan horse that undermines the state,” Ms. Alhussein warned.
Nationalism’s double edge is enhanced, Ms. Alhussein went on to argue, by the undermining of the buffer function of the kingdom’s traditional religious establishment. “The state will now be more accountable for its credibility, and potentially much more exposed,” she said.
Prince Mohammed’s refusal to tackle religious institutionalism impacts not only his attempts at consolidation of his power but also his effort to project the kingdom as an enlightened 21st century state.
The crown prince, in a bid to alter the kingdom’s image and cut expenditure, has significantly reduced spending on a decades-long, US$100 billion campaign to globally promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.
Prince Mohammed has at the same time ordered state-controlled vehicles that once promoted religious ultra-conservativism to preach tolerance, mutual respect and inter-faith dialogue instead.
Mr. Ives’ analysis suggests, however, that the kingdom’s U-turn is unlikely to lead to a clean break with support abroad of ultra-conservatism without the dismantling of religious institutionalism.
He argues that the domestic pressure that persuades states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to support co-religionist rebel groups beyond their borders is generated not by religious affinity but by religious institutionalism that creates a political role for religious forces.
Mr. Ives’ arguments appear to be borne out by continued Saudi support for Islamist militants in Balochistan, the Pakistani province that borders on Iran, as well as Algeria and Libya and propagation of non-violent expressions of an apolitical, quietist, and loyalist interpretation of Islam in countries like Kazakhstan.
Saudi Arabia’s new public decency law in effect highlights the limitations of Prince Mohammed’s reforms.
In a private conversation last year with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit to Britain, Prince Mohammed reportedly put some flesh on the skeleton of his vision of moderate Islam.
When urged by the archbishop to allow non-Muslims to open places of worship in the kingdom, Prince Mohammed responded: “I could never allow that. This is the holy site of Islam, and it should stay as such.”
Why should China fully support Iran in Persian Gulf tensions?
According to many international thinkers creating tensions in the Persian Gulf region by the U.S. also aims at containing China and limiting Beijing’s access to energy resources of the region which is driving engine of Chinese economy.
China was one of the oil exporter countries in 70s and 80s, but following its economic growth it has turned into an oil importing country since 1993 and due to continuation of its economic growth now the country is heavily dependent on importing of oil from other countries. Nowadays the country is the second energy consuming and third oil importing country in the world. Despite the Beijing’s efforts to provide its energy security by diversifying its energy sources during the past years, the country is still heavily dependent on energy import.
Thanks to its efforts and hardworking people China left its global economic rivals behind and became the second biggest economy of the world after the United States. It seems that due to its plans and initiatives Beijing is also managing to leave behind the U.S. in near future and become the world’s biggest economy. The White House has kept an eye the China’s development and its plans and initiatives. The U.S. has never been negligent in monitoring China’s achievements and ambitions.
By changing its approaches and positive interaction with rest of the world Since 1970s, China has promoted its global position to the second biggest economy of the world while before it the country was among the third world countries. The U.S.’s efforts to contain China has become more serious since the beginning of the 21st century. Since Donald Trump took office the level of conflicts between China and the U.S. has climbed up from economic and trade level and is entering into political and security level. Now, Increase of Chinese power and global influence is a major challenge for the White House. In the first step president Trump waged wagged a trade and economic war against Beijing and in the next stage Trump is going to restrict China’s influence globally particularly among the U.S. allies.
To contain China, the U.S. has resorted to many strategies and tactics such as destabilizing west borders of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan and trying to spread to central Asia aiming at thwarting Chinese ‘One road-One belt’ initiative that many experts believe that success of this project will let China to determine the word trade orders in the future.
Trying to intensify territorial disputes between China and its neighbors besides its trade war against Beijing are among another U.S. tactics to contain China.
Statistics from www.worldstopexports.com website indicates that China imports its needed crude oil from the following countries:
1. Russia: US$37.9 billion
(15.8% of China’s total imported crude)
2. Saudi Arabia: $29.7 billion (12.4%)
3. Angola: $24.9 billion (10.4%)
4. Iraq: $22.4 billion (9.4%)
5. Oman: $17.3 billion (7.2%)
6. Brazil: $16.2 billion (6.8%)
7. Iran: $15 billion (6.3%)
8. Kuwait: $11.9 billion (5%)
9. Venezuela: $7 billion (2.9%)
10. United States: $6.8 billion (2.8%)
11. United Arab Emirates: $6.7 billion (2.8%)
12. Congo: $6.4 billion (2.7%)
13. Colombia: $5 billion (2.1%)
14. Malaysia: $4.8 billion (2%)
15. Libya: $4.7 billion (2%)
Crude oil import is driving engine of Chinese economy so any threats to energy security of China will inflict a heavy blow to the country’s economic growth and can help U.S. to win trade war against Beijing and contain it.
Above mentioned statistics show that some 43% of the crude oil that China imports goes from Persian Gulf and 4.6% goes from Libya and Venezuela that the U.S. destructive polices has already created a chaotic situation in two countries.
Many experts believe that the U.S. withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal known as the JCPOA under false pretexts not only aims at pressurizing Iran but also it is a way to pressurize China to compromise in the trade war that Washington has waged against it. Any conflict and tension in the Persian Gulf region which China’s economy is heavily dependent on means a great blow to the country’s economy, therefore many suspicious incidents and tensions created by Washington and its proxies in Persian Gulf region like attacking oil tankers can be interpreted as the White House’s measures to contain China in order to guarantee the U.S. hegemony and influence for the next decades.
Commenting on possible relation between recent developments in Persian Gulf and its effects on China’s economy, Dr. Osman Faruk Logoglu a senior member of Tukey’s CHP and former diplomat says,” With its provocative actions and sanctions, Washington not only aims to buttress its support for Israel and its Arab allies by punishing Iran but at the same time also intends to deny Chinese access to Iranian oil. The fear of and rivalry with China is today one of the primary drivers of American foreign policy. Interruption of the oil flow in the Gulf is one way to directly hurt Chinese interests. The Trump administration is, therefore, playing with fire in Iran and a potential conflagration with China.”
A senior Iranian analyst Sadeq Maleki also believes, “The rising tensions between the United States and Iran are mainly caused by Tehran’s independence policy and Washington’s intolerance toward this fact. However, such independence is considered as an exceptional opportunity for the Europeans and other states, especially China, that need to supply their energy from Iran and the Persian Gulf region. A big part of Washington’s policy of fomenting tensions against Tehran and making the Persian Gulf region more volatile comes in line with the White House’s plan to contain China. Iran’s resistance to the U.S.’ pressure is in fact shaping an equation, in which the Islamic Republic indirectly contributes to the interests of China and even Europe. So, China and Europe are highly expected to help Iran in this regard. In a long-term strategic perspective, the U.S.’ long distance from the Middle East, the dangers of insecurity in the Persian Gulf region, and the proximity of Europe and China to the region, heighten the need for greater coordination between Iran, China and Europe in countering the U.S.’ aggressive attitudes.”
Zeynep Oktav, an international relation Professor
at Istanbul Medeniyet University also sees a close relation between U.S.
created tensions in the Persian Gulf and containment of China. She said, “I
believe there’s a close relation as Washington wants to dominate the Middle
East with its efforts to exclude China from the region. In this context
containing Iran is of crucial importance as China buys Iranian crude oil. China
currently seems to change its previous policies of balancing Iran and USA.
Beijing applies latest sanctions on Iran, however, it opposes any possibility
of American military attack on Iran. In my opinion, USA challenges China by
threatening Iran in the Middle East, the issue is not about Iran, it’s about
Even some experts who don’t believe in close relation between the ongoing U.S. created tensions in Persian Gulf and containment of China by the U.S. don’t reject the possibility totally and say the relation is indirect not direct.
Prof. Larry Catá Backer of Pennsylvania State University says, “Relation between Persian Gulf tensions and U.S.-China negotiations may reflect post facto efforts to exploit serendipitous perceive opportunity; it is much less likely to represent the execution of some sort of strategic plan.”
Prof. Nader Entessar, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama believes that if there is any relationship between the tensions in the Persian Gulf and containment of China, it is not direct.
From our partner Tehran Times
Istanbul, the Mayoral Election Rerun: A Turning Point for Democracy?
Despite state-sponsored and private efforts to influence the outcome of Turkey’s mayoral elections on March 31 either directly or indirectly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered major losses. Of particular note is the mayoral election in Istanbul where AKP member and former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim lost to Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, someone who was not especially popular or well-known. He resembles the last person, who effectively challenged the AKP in general election: Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been jailed since 2016.
The outcome of the mayoral election in Istanbul reflects poorly on the president’s ability to ensure that a member of his own party remains in power in the city where Erdogan himself was elected as mayor in 1994, although with the lowest percentage(25.19%) in Istanbul election history. Since then, Erdogan has not lost even one election—be it for mayor or some other political position—despite widespread claims of corruption involving Erdogan and the AKP.
Imamoglu prevailed in the election against his AKP opponent because he was seen by many diverse people as the antithesis of Erdogan and the AKP. Istanbul voters apparently saw Imamoglu as a champion of their desire for a peaceful country and someone who could stop the ruling party’s pervasive hateful and divisive discourse and policies, its human rights violations, and its embrace of kleptocracy and kakistocracy, at least in Istanbul. Erdogan, of course, was not happy with Imamoglu’s popularity and acted as if he, too, was running against Imamoglu. Erdogan wanted his close companion, Yildirim, to win the mayoral election and resorted his usual strategy of declaring his critics terrorists. Through state-controlled media, Erdogan implied that anyone voted for his candidate, Yildirim, was voting in support of Turkey and that anyone who voted for Yildirim’s opponent, Imamoglu, supported terrorists and were enemies of state. Yildirim’s (and by extension Erdogan’s) campaign slogan was “the survival of Turkey.”The message was that for Turkey to continue to exist, the residents of Istanbul should support the ruling party, the AKP. In other words, if the ruling party is defeated, Turkey will no longer exist. The campaign slogan and the policies of the AKP received consistent support from the leader of the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli. The efforts of Erdogan and Bahceli, however, failed miserably. The winner on March 31 was Mr. Imamoglu, leaving Erdogan and Bahceli shocked at the outcome.
The election defeat was not something that Erdogan could swallow, and he made his displeasure known. The Supreme Election Council (YSK) subsequently ruled that the mayoral election in Istanbul would be repeated on June 23. Erdogan realized that his strategy did not work this time. He also realized the importance of Kurdish voters in Turkey and that these Kurdish citizens would be the ones to determine the winner of the mayoral election in Istanbul.
Armed with these insights, Erdogan changed his campaign strategy to one that was built on gaining the votes of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Gone from the playbook was ethnic discrimination and the indiscriminate labeling of opponents of the ruling party as terrorists. The strategy, however, would be an uphill battle. Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have not forgotten the government’s harsh policies in the name of fighting terrorism, such as destroying houses in several Kurdish populated cities in the southeastern region of Turkey. When he developed his new campaign strategy, Erdogan most likely underestimate the power of the Kurdish vote. As the jailed HDP co-leader Demirtas warned, “Those who see Kurds as ‘simpletons who are very easy to deceive’ have always been mistaken, they will continue being mistaken.” He encouraged Kurdish citizens to go to the ballot boxes to say no to fascism and to defend their rights. In other words, Demirtas was implying that the Kurdish population should vote but not to support the AKP, as the AKP is fascist.
Discourse on the issues occurred for the first time. For example, Yildirim used the word Kurdistan during one of his political rallies. Just before the March 31 election, however, Erdogan said, “In my country, there is no region called Kurdistan.” In another example, the leader of the MHP, Bahceli, referred to the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as Ocalan. Bahceli previously had avoided calling the PKK leader by name, referring to him instead as “the chief of terrorists.”
At the same time, the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, countered Demirtas’ plea for Kurdish voters to vote in the mayoral election but not for the AKP, making an announcement through state news agency, Anadolu Agency(AA) in which he called on Turkey’s most influential pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, to remain neutral and not support either candidate in the Istanbul election rerun on June 23. Meanwhile, Osman Ocalan, the PKK leader’s brother, appeared on the state-run television network TRT Kurdi for an interview in which he supported his brother’s message and criticized the CHP and its candidate.
The outcome of the election on June 23 most likely will be the same as it was on March 31. The Kurds, whose houses and neighborhoods have been destroyed by the security forces in the name of counterterrorism policies have not forgotten what happened at the hands of the ruling AKP. They also have not forgotten the Kobani incidents, where Kurds were left to die in front of ISIS. Further, some righteous citizens who have observed the victimization of hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, regardless of their ethnicity or color, by government decrees, will also not support Erdogan’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul. They will choose the opposition candidate because they long for an end to the Erdogan regime’s constitutional and human rights violations (Human Rights Watch, 2019; UN Report, 2018) in response to Kurds who dare to disagree with the ruling party.Istanbul’s Kurdish voters will not forget Erdogan’s disdain for the Kurds. The Kurds know that Kurds,too, are human. They will not forget Erdogan’s overly political and pragmatist approach to human beings. Yesterday’s terrorist is today’s human, or vice versa, depending on the vote the ruling party needs.
If the Erdogan-supported candidate is again defeated, it is highly likely that the Istanbul mayoral election rerun will be a turning point for Turkish democracy—a turning back to Turkish democracy.
*Yusuf Gunay, Security Expert & Analyst, Cleveland, Ohio, US
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