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The Rebellion in Iran: A Comprehensive Assessment

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan

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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[1].

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).[2]

Inflation is still in double digits, while unemployment is staggering [3]. 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[4]. 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[5]. 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[6] – 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[7]. 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.[8] 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.”

 

[1] 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.

[2] 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

[3] 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)

[4] Caspian Finance and Credit Institution, www.caspianci.ir was one of the major financial institutions that was involved in this scheme.

[5] 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.

[6] According to regime officials, people attacked the offices of 60 Friday prayer leaders throughout the country.

[7] Breaking the Stalemate, The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, study by Mettis Analytics, a Washington, DC-based research company, March 2015.

[8] 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.

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the incoming Executive Director of the School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. For the past eight years, Sheehandirected the graduate programs in Global Affairs & Human Security and Negotiations & Conflict Management in the College of Public Affairs. An award-winning scholar, Sheehan has been influential in shaping Washington’s thinking on the prospect of a democratic transition in Iran and is the author of more than fifty articles in prominent news outlets and academic journals. Learn more about his scholarship on terrorism, counterterrorism, and regime change in Iran at www.professorsheehan.comand follow updates via @ProfSheehan.

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Middle East

Whither the Arab and the Muslim world?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An agreement to establish diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel and a Saudi-Pakistani spat over Kashmir coupled with feuds among Gulf states and between Turkey, the kingdom, and the Emirates drive nails into the notion that the Arab and Islamic world by definition share common geopolitical interests on the basis of ethnicity or religion and embrace kinship solidarity.

The UAE-Israel agreement weakens the Palestinians’ efforts to create a state of their own but their criticism of the UAE’s move to become the third Arab country after Egypt and Jordan to officially recognize the Jewish state is based on a moral rather than a legal claim.

The UAE and Israel see their relations with the United States and the perceived threat from Iran as bigger fish to fry.

Both countries hope that an upgrading of their relations will keep the US engaged in the Middle East, particularly given that it puts pressure to follow suit on other Gulf states that have similar concerns and have engaged with Israel but not to the degree that the UAE has.

The UAE and Israel further worry that a potential victory by presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the US’ November presidential election could bring to office an administration more willing than President Donald J. Trump to seek accommodation with Iran and emphasize human rights and basic freedoms.

The establishment of diplomatic relations strengthens the UAE’s position as one of the United States’ most important partners in the Middle East and allows Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to argue that his hardline policy towards the Palestinians does not impede a broader peace between the Jewish state and Arab nations.

Mr. Netanyahu is however concerned that his argument may resonate less with a Biden administration that potentially could be less empathetic to Israel’s annexationist aspirations on the West Bank as well as with the right-wing in Israel that may not feel that the UAE is worth surrendering what they see as historical Jewish land.

Ironically, the price of suspending annexation in exchange for diplomatic relations with the UAE gets Mr. Netanyahu off the hook in the short term.

Mr. Netanyahu had pledged to annex parts of the West Bank on July 1 but has dragged his feet since because the Trump administration, while endorsing the principle, opposed any tangible move on the ground. Mr. Trump feared that annexation would have pre-empted his ability to claim some success for his controversial Israel-Palestinian peace plan.

Emirati officials had made clear that a formal annexation of parts of the West Bank, captured from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war, would preclude the establishment of formal relations with Israel.

The question now is whether the UAE will put paid to that notion by opening their embassy in Jerusalem, whose status under international law has yet to be negotiated, rather than Tel Aviv.

So is what the UAE, alongside Jordan and Egypt, will do if and when Israel legally incorporates West Bank lands sometime in the future.

The UAE’s willingness to formally recognize Israel constituted the latest nail in the coffin of Arab and Muslim solidarity that has been trumped by hardnosed interests of the state and its rulers.

As Messrs. Trump and Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed were putting the final touches on their coordinated statements, traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were locked into an escalating spat over Kashmir.

India last year revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and imposed a brutal crackdown.

Muslim countries with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the lead, much like in the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, have been reluctant to jeopardize their growing economic and military ties to India, effectively hanging Pakistan out to dry.

The two Gulf states, instead of maintaining their traditional support for Pakistan, feted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as developments in Kashmir unfolded.

In response, Pakistan hit out at Saudi Arabia where it hurts. In rare public criticism of the kingdom, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi suggested that Pakistan would convene an Islamic conference outside the confines of the Saudi-controlled Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after the group rejected Islamabad’s request for a meeting on Kashmir.

Targeting Saudi Arabia’s leadership and quest for Muslim religious soft power, Mr. Qureishi issued his threat eight months after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan under Saudi pressure bowed out of an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur convened by the kingdom’s critics, including Qatar, Turkey, and Iran.

Saudi Arabia fears that any challenge to its leadership could fuel demands that Saudi Arabia sign over custodianship of Mecca and Medina to a pan-Islamic body.

The custodianship and Saudi Arabia’s image as a leader of the Muslim world is what persuaded Crown Prince Mohammed to reach out to Israel primarily to use that as well as his embrace of dialogue with Jewish and Christian groups to bolster his tarnished image in Washington and other Western capitals.

The UAE’s recognition of Israel puts Saudi Arabia more than any other Gulf state in the hot seat when it comes to establishing relations with Israel and it puts Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the driver’s seat.

That is all about interests and competition and has little to do with Arab or Muslim solidarity.

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Rejiggering Gulf Security: China’s Game of Shadow Boxing

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China and its Gulf partners appear to be engaged in a game of shadow boxing.

At stake is the future of Gulf security and the management of differences between the region’s conservative monarchies and revolutionary Iran.

With governments passing to one another unofficial subtle messages, intellectuals and journalists are the ones out front in the ring.

In the latest round, Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media, has cast subtlety aside.

Ms. Alamuddin warned in strong and rare anti-Chinese language that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia.

Writing in Arab News, the Saudi Arabia’s primary English-language newspaper, Ms. Alamuddin suggested that the Lebanese Shiite militia’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran.

Her tirade was as much a response to reports of the alleged landmark agreement as it was to a declaration by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that China was willing to invest in Lebanon’s infrastructure.

“Chinese companies are ready to inject money into this country. If this happened, it would bring money to the country, bring investment, create job opportunities, allow heavy transport, and so on,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

In a state-controlled media outlet in a country that has studiously backed some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behavior, including the brutal crackdown on Uyghur Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissidents, Ms. Alamuddin did not mince words.

“Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange.”

“Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange,” Ms. Alamuddin charged.

She quoted a Middle East expert of a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”

She went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hezbollah seeks to impose.”

Ms. Alamuddin’s outburst implicitly recognized that China was signaling Gulf states, at a time of heightened uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ regional defense umbrella, that they need to reduce tensions with Iran if the People’s Republic were to engage in helping create a new regional security architecture.

China was signaling Gulf states, at a time of heightened uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ regional defense umbrella, that they need to reduce tensions with Iran.

Expressing concern about last month’s US decision to withdraw troops from Europe a day after Ms. Alamuddin’s stark criticism of China, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Assistant Secretary-General for political affairs and negotiation Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg suggested that “a more systematic framework, with organic feedback to the leadership and decision-makers” was needed for US-Gulf security discussions.

The GCC groups the Gulf’s six monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

China has been subtly pressuring Gulf states through academic and Communist party publications and public statements by prominent scholars with close ties to the government in Beijing.

Its messaging has primarily targeted Saudi Arabia, the one Gulf state that has so far refrained from engaging in any gestures towards Iran that could facilitate a dialing down of tension.

recent article in a renowned Chinese journal laid out the principles on which China is willing to break with its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles to engage in Gulf security.

The principles included “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

Most Gulf states have extended a helping hand to Iran, the Middle East country most hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iranian and UAE foreign ministers agreed in a recent video call to cooperate during the health crisis.

“We agreed to continue dialogue on [the] theme of hope—especially as [the] region faces tough challenges, and tougher choices ahead,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter.

UAE officials said earlier that there were limits to a reduction of tensions. They said a real détente would only be possible once Iran changed its behavior, meaning a halt to support for proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and a surrender of its nuclear ambitions.

The Chinese-Gulf shadow boxing takes place against a slow-moving and seemingly troubled US and Chinese-backed Pakistani effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Chinese-Gulf shadow boxing takes place against a slow-moving and seemingly troubled US and Chinese-backed Pakistani effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week without providing details that he had averted a military confrontation between the two Gulf powers. He said mediation was “making progress but slowly.”

Ms. Alamuddin’s column coupled with Saudi Arabia’s refusal to capitalize on the pandemic as way to reduce tensions, suggests that Saudi Arabia has yet to fully embrace Mr. Khan’s efforts.

Mr. Khan’s efforts are likely to be further complicated by the disclosure last month by Pakistani law enforcement that a Baloch gang leader, who was detained in 2017, had confessed to giving “secret information and sketches regarding army installations and officials to foreign agents,” believed to be Iranians.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the disclosure.

Pakistan has long asserted that Iran and India have lent support to Baloch nationalist militants responsible for multiple attacks on military and Chinese targets in the South Asian state.

“The Iran-Pakistan border issues are mainly affected by the sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For Pakistan, this is a costly and difficult diplomatic situation at this time,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Pakistan has a vested interest in helping dial down Saudi-Iranian tensions. It takes, however, two to tango and a mediator whose efforts are not burdened by bilateral issues of his own with any of the parties.

To move the pendulum, more will be required than a regional go-between or subtle nudging. With the US likely to refrain from doing the heavy lifting, that task may be left to China. If Ms. Alamuddin is an indication, China is already discovering that changing the paradigm in the Middle East is easier said than done.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Evolving Japan-UAE ties

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Mohamed bin Zayed with Japan's Abe. Image Credit: WAM

Japan and the UAE share a unique relationship with each other. Japan recognised the UAE as an independent state in 1971 and opened its Embassy in the UAE in 1974 and on the other hand, UAE opened its embassy in Japan in 1973. Both nations share strong bilateral economic relations, dating back to 1961 when the first shipment of the crude oil was exported from Umm Al-Sharif offshore field in Abu Dhabi to Japan. Japan is known to be the world’s fourth-largest importer of oil. In 2017, it was the second-largest export market, behind China, for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The UAE became the top destination in the Middle East region for Japan’s exports, valued at $7.18 billion in 2019, taking economic bilateral relations to a great level. However, on 19 July 2020, UAE spacecraft rocketed into blue skies from a Japanese launch centre at the start of a seven-month journey to Mars on the Arab’s world’s first interplanetary mission. This mission gave a boost to its strategic relations as well as space cooperation.

Understanding their bilateral relations

The longstanding cordial relationship between the UAE and Japan has been honored for decades. In 2013, PM Shinzo Abe visited the UAE and both nations jointly announced the statement on the strengthening of the Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and the UAE towards stability and prosperity. The relations between both countries have mostly focused on the economy and trade ever since they established their diplomatic relations. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Japan as an official guest in February 2014 to follow up the Joint Statement issued during the Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE in May 2013.

In 2016, the number of Japanese citizens living in the UAE totalled 4,000, while hundreds of Emirati citizens are in Japan for education and investment purposes.

According to the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), In 2017, Japan imported Dh57.3 billion worth of oil from the UAE.

In 2018, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) was signed between the two countries when Abe visited the UAE. With the signing of the CSPI, the relationship between Japan and the UAE entered a new era of strategic partnership for the future and joint cooperation strategy between the institutions of the two countries. They also agreed to increase trade in areas which included renewable energy, advanced robots, artificial intelligence and health care. Ensuring cordial energy ties are critical under the CSPI. In 2018, Japan also acquired an oil concession in Abu Dhabi for the coming 40 years which proved that Japan is an important strategic energy partner in the UAE.

The leadership of the UAE has been keen on strengthening ties with Japan in areas like education, scientific research and industry. It aims to seek its ties with Japan to new levels as Japan possesses advanced technology which would serve the sustainable and comprehensive development goals in the UAE. Cooperation is very strong in the education field. The first Japanese school was inaugurated in the UAE in 2009 and began teaching the Arabic language, Islamic education and social studies to the students of the Emirates along with the Japanese curriculum. Furthermore, around 100 students from the Emirates are studying in Japanese universities for bachelors, masters and even PhD degrees.

In 2019, an attempt of initiating to teach Japanese as a second foreign language in some UAE high schools was discussed among both countries. Akihiko Nakajima, new Japanese ambassador to the UAE affirmed that ‘both nations are currently giving importance to educational cooperation’. The friendly ties were further strengthened in recent times when Sheikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Dr Sultan Ahmad Al-Jaber, Minister of State and Special Envoy to Japan, attended the enthronement ceremony of the Japanese Emperor Naruhito in 2019. They wished that Japan shall achieve a brighter and more prosperous future during the ‘Reiwa Era’.

Japan and the UAE have been closely cooperating in space sciences. In October 2018, ‘KhalifaSat’ was launched into outer space from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan aboard an H-IIA rocket. In January 2020, Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the UAE and other Gulf countries to further bolster the strong ties which have been evolving on multiple fronts like trade, energy, technology, space and education. “UAE-Japan relations are historic and based on trust, cooperation, respect and mutual interests,” Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said. Abe and Sheikh Mohammad also witnessed the signing of an Energy Cooperation Agreement between supreme Petroleum Council, represented by Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), and Japan’s agency for natural resources and energy.

Space Cooperation

The lift-off of the Mars orbiter named Amal or Hope probe on 19th July 2020, from a Japanese launch centre is to be followed soon by China and the United States. Amal blasted off from the Tanegashima space centre aboard a Mitsubishi heavy industries H-IIA rocket. This has given a major boost to space cooperation between Japan and the UAE. Amal is set to reach Mars by February 2021, which will mark the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since the country’s formation. It points out that the launching of Amal was well planned in line with the celebration of 50 years of the country’s formation. “The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and we’ll continue developing our space exploration program,” UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference from Tanegashima. The Amal statecraft costs $200 million and it is about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. Japan’s services of such launches are known well for accuracy and on-time record. However, the providers are working to cut costs to be more competitive internationally. Japan also has its own Mars mission planned in 2024, where it aims to send spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos to collect samples to bring back to Earth in 2029.

The objective of the UAE’S mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics and fundamentally, building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 days. Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager said, “What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have a holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has said that ‘Hope Probe’ exemplifies the distinctive strategic partnership between the UAE and Japan.

It is the first time that the UAE attempted to send a deep space mission, that of a mission to Mars. It clearly sends a strong message to the Arab youth that if the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then they certainly can do much more. Emiratis also believed that it represented a step forward for the Arab world and for scientists.

However, energy remains a key priority in the ongoing relations between the two countries which may contribute significantly to energy development and economic diversification in the UAE and Japan. Through space and strategic cooperation, the two countries are looking to expand and deepen the fields of cooperation. A successful mission to Mars will indeed be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a great future in space. The launch of the hope probe demonstrates that effective space cooperation is a driving force for strengthening their bilateral ties. Hope is expected to begin transmitting information back to earth by September 2021.

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