With protests waning in Iran, is change still possible?

The recent uprising in Iran seems to be contained, yet the regime will not be able to kill it, writes Saeed Rahnema. How will leaders in the country respond going forward? 

By: /
January 9, 2018
People protest in Tehran, Iran, on December 30, 2017, in this picture obtained from social media. REUTERS / Handout
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Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

Demonstrations in late December in the holy city of Mashhad were the little sparks that produced the wildfire of protests that have spread throughout Iran over the past two weeks.

In the Middle East, many major events have started with such sparks: The long civil war in Lebanon began when a bus was blown up; the first Palestinian Intifada started after a traffic accident in Gaza; the Arab Spring erupted after a desperate street vendor self-immolated. Of course, these sparks needed underlying explosive conditions; there are daily traffic accidents, explosions and suicides throughout the region, and life goes on.

From Mashhad, the protests spread to more than 80 cities — at least 21 people have reportedly been killed, two in detention, with more than 3,000 arrested. The last time Iranians revolted, in 2009, one faction of the regime was directly involved, protesting rigged presidential elections. This time, the whole establishment has been targeted. Despite claims by both factions, who blame the other and foreign agents, this is a genuine, independent, spontaneous revolt by a wide strata of people fed up with political, economic and cultural failures of the regime in the past four decades. The non-religious slogans and rhythmic chants couldn’t be clearer: “Hey, Reformers, Principlists, the end is near for both of you”; “No Gaza, no Lebanon, my life for Iran”; “Let go of Syria, take care of Iran”; “Death to Khamenei”; and “Death to Rouhani.”  

This is a revolt of the poor, the unemployed and the deprived that has been  brewing for several years, as reflected in many work stoppages by people who were not paid for months at a time only to get detention and lashes; in demonstrations and sit-ins of pensioners whose pay has been delayed for months following funds going bankrupt; in deep frustrations of university graduates without employment or hope; in the anger of lower middle classes whose meager savings were stolen by the phony Islamic trusts that have mushroomed as a result of deregulations; and poor peasants moving to shanty towns because of declining agriculture and water mismanagement. Hyperinflation, along with rampant corruption and huge income gaps — signs of which ordinary people see daily in the extravagant spending of the nouveau-riches families of the establishment — have infuriated people and brought many to the streets.

Added to economic issues are political repression, a lack of basic civil liberties and personal freedoms, and the jailing of union leaders, journalists and bloggers, as well as cultural repression and state intervention in the most minute details of everyday life — from women’s dress codes and young men’s hair styles, to attacks on private gatherings and musical concerts, and barring women from attending sporting events. 

"The Islamic regime in Iran has clearly shown that it is incapable of reforming itself, and the people of Iran need to bring about change."

The downright failure of four decades of the “Islamification” of culturally-vibrant Iranian society and the squandering of millions of dollars on numerous institutions for the “propagation of Islamic culture” (not to mention on the unpopular state-run radio and television, and the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance) have been reflected in ever-increasing social ills, widespread addictions, early-age prostitution and youth homelessness.

Internal factional fights have intensified, and even a character such as former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly challenges the supreme leader and the head of the judiciary. Interestingly, they cannot touch him, because during his eight years in office he encouraged widespread bribery, corruption and embezzlement by all officials while reportedly secretly documented everything — hence the whole hierarchy lives in fear of disclosures of their thefts and misdeeds.

How will the regime react to the biggest anti-government protests in almost a decade? A decision to retreat means introducing serious reforms that face major obstacles. The economy is in bad shape as a result of mismanagement, corruption, the high costs of the regime’s military involvement in the region, the funding of so many nonsensical Islamic cultural institutions and sanctions. Moreover, there is a state within the state in Iran. Revolutionary and religious foundations that control about 40 percent of the GDP do not pay any taxes, and are not under government and parliament’s scrutiny.

Some premature excitement foresaw the regime on the verge of collapse. The ruling bloc is, however, comprised of a closely knit clerical-military-business oligarchy with extensive repressive and ideological apparatuses. The regime still has sizeable support among millions who receive allowances from religious foundations and can be used in “elections” and as rent-a-mobs in pro-regime demonstrations. But the regime is aware that it is being delegitimized even among many of these supporters. While the uprising seems to have once again been suppressed, it continues beneath the surface and the regime will not be able to kill it.

The Islamic regime in Iran has clearly shown that it is incapable of reforming itself, and the people of Iran need to bring about change. However, no movement without organization and leadership can achieve much. Defeating this powerful oligarchy requires a united front of all opposition forces, who unfortunately are presently weak, divided and many in exile. It also needs moral external support, rather than external interference. In fact, any support expressed by the governments of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump will be dangerously counterproductive and only strengthen the Islamist militarists.

As for the Canadian government, it should make any rapprochement with the Islamic Republic conditional on the release of political prisoners and protection of human rights. Canada also needs to make a serious commitment to preventing the regime’s past and present officials from using Canada as a safe-haven and repository of their stolen money.  

A shorter version of this article was published by the Globe and Mail.