Iran Protests, in the Crossfire of a Battle of Words and Images: A Six-Question Analysis

On December 28, 2017, a series of protests started in several Iranian cities, and they are continuing despite a firm state response. Protests are spreading like wildfire, even with casualties (21 dead and hundreds arrested as of January 2nd) and gaining momentum day by day.

What happened all of a sudden in Iran to trigger such protests?

To answer this question, let’s go back to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA) on January 16, 2016. At that time, expectations were very high. Unfortunately for the Iranian people, there have been no results; instead, the average Iranian has seen a total lack of significant economic improvement, despite Iran being the second-largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with an estimated GDP in 2016 of US$412.2 billion.

The unemployment rate is high and does not seem to budge, staying around 12.6% of the total workforce as reported by Ieconomics:

This rate is higher among youth and women, and has recently been as high as 29.2%. Knowing that over 57 million people (70% of the population) are of working age, this adds more pressure on the Iranian economy, especially since many of those who are employed are considered to be under-employed.

The ongoing crisis in the energy sector has not helped matters, as Iran’s economy depends, to a large extent, on oil revenues that are volatile. The earlier economic sanctions struck Iran full force, but the country avoided becoming the Asian Venezuela even though President Trump is doing his best to push Iran into a dire situation! Trump refused to recertify the JCPOA on October 13, claiming that Iran was violating it (which was denied by the EU, China, and Russia). That refusal came after having insulted the country during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 19. Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, continues to harangue Iran at the UN, claiming to have ‘undeniable’ evidence that Iran supplied Yemeni rebels with arms and missiles, as reported by several media outlets. It is a reminder of the usual American tactics when it wants to destroy an enemy; the similarities with the Iraqi case are too obvious to be dismissed. But this time, the UN has thus far refused to be baited.

Meanwhile, corruption remains a key problem. Iran’s rank out of 176 countries was 131 in 2016 according to Transparency International.  Reformists, Conservatives, the Supreme Leader, and the President all regularly denounce this plague but to no avail; a generalized system of briberies combined with nepotism, political patronage, and cronyism pervade all of the Iranian society’s dealings and way of life. Moreover, on December 29, 2016, President Rouhani stated that corruption is linked to poverty and homelessness, according to the Tehran Times.

On top of the corruption and the missing anticipated economic relief, during the week of December 22nd, 2017, egg prices rose by 9% and by 53.7% compared to last year’s corresponding week, as indicated in the Financial Tribune. This price increase was due in part to the culling of around 16 million chickens because of avian flu,  an epidemic that strikes the Iranian Poultry industry on a regular basis.

This dramatic rise (on top of the past year’s other cost of living increases) only added to President Rouhani’s austerity measures that have been in place since 2013 exhausted the last of the Iranian people’s patience. This, combined with the high level of ongoing corruption and the denied hopes for a more vigorous economy (not to mention other simmering resentments), was all the spark that was needed for these protests.

In the days following the initial protests, the alleged causes of the protests switched from economic and social issues to political ones. These can be presented in two categories: 1) internal factors related to religion and human rights issues (women’s rights and resistance to the compulsory hijab, political prisoners, and opposition to the regime), and 2) external factors related to Iran’s foreign policy in the region (its involvement in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and its relations with Hezbollah) and to the adoption of severe IMF regulations (the country is already facing multiple issues and adding strict new measures was the last straw).

All of these elements are the major components of a Molotov cocktail that exploded on December 28.

Who is behind these protests?

The Russians! All joking aside, the instigators that come to mind are Iran’s younger generation, a youth that represents two-thirds of Iran’s 81 million population born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They are connected to the rest of the world via the Internet and social media despite government censorship; they have seen the effect of the Arab Spring on Tunisia and are aware of how young people live freely in the West (especially in the US).

Source: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/iran

Source: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/iran

The Iranian youth constitute the first layer of the cake. But once we dig a little bit, we find another possible instigator, namely a particular category of the population serving the interests of the CIA and MI6 whose worldviews are remnants of Mossadegh’s and the Shah’s eras. This category is fundamentally against the Islamic Regime.

If we keep digging further, we find another layer, which is another category of the population persuaded by Israeli and Saudi Intelligence and whose goal is clear, to break the Regime and its mullahs and weaken the country that is a major regional power, and thus a threat to Saudi and Israeli interests.

Finally, the last layer is another category of the population manipulated by the Revolutionary Guards themselves, who create ‘controlled’ protests to spot hotheads. While it is a bit of a far-fetched scenario, it may indeed be plausible, especially considering the Regime’s track record of counterattacks utilizing  pro-Regime’ rallies.

Finding one instigator to these protests is simplifying a complex reality. The truth is likely a mix of all of these instigators at the same time, or perhaps each in succession over time, seizing the momentum to advance their common goal of a Regime change for some, and to entrap the opposition leaders for the latter.

Will these protests succeed?

Not Likely! That is the rational answer. Here is why:

Firstly, the Regime is powerful and can break any social movement (as is the case in China). The Regime has been strengthening its hold over the years. It has brainwashed the Iranian people with endless propaganda for decades, playing on a nationalist chord that is strong among all Iranian people, no matter where their allegiance lies. This is a major point in favor of the Regime.

Secondly, if we look back at Persia/Iran’s modern history, it seems that the Iranian people are moved by religious ideologies and only revolutions of a religious nature succeed for the long term. Two examples can be cited: 1) the Bábism ‘Revolution’ in the middle of the nineteen century that led to a series of revolts and upheavals that weakened the Qajar Dynasty (the reign of Nasser-e-Din Shah Qajar), which in turn allowed foreign powers, namely Britain and Russia, to penetrate the country more easily; and 2) the 1979 Islamic revolution that ended the rule of the Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty, replacing it with the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. In both cases, it was religion that was at the basis of revolutionary change.

That said, there are two scenarios in which these protests may succeed if pushed to the limit.

The first one posits that social media’s amplifying effect is a double-edged sword of which we should be wary. Despite the Regime’s shutdown of Instagram and Telegram and its restriction of social media, the Iranian people (especially the young ones) may want to have their ‘Iranian Spring’; they will do their best to push for many social demands to pressure the Regime and force it into a corner. Nonetheless, Iran has become a highly ideologized country. It is difficult to generate a new powerful ideology to replace the current one, but a breach has been opened that will be difficult to close.

The second scenario that may have the best chances of succeeding if indeed it happens, is if Progressive/Reformist mullahs overthrow the current regime. The Revolution, to succeed, must come from within the Regime and be a movement with a progressive religious nature that will appeal to all Iranians. The chances of success for this option are very high, especially since the opposition to the Regime is fragmented around several groups, each one of them with its own agenda (as presented above).

How will foreign powers react?

On one side, while China’s rule is to never interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries, if its interests are threatened (especially with the Belt and Road Initiative where Iran plays an important role), the Middle Kingdom may offer support (logistics and intelligence) to the Iranian Regime. Russia will do the same since it is not in its strategic interests to have a revolution succeeding in a friendly neighboring country; that could give unwelcome ideas to Russians (including those in its Federated States). The EU will try to reduce the exacerbated tensions by using the UN diplomatic channels for two reasons: the EU needs Iran’s projects that will stimulate the EU economy and lift it out of its current gloomy situation, and the EU does not want to deal with another wave of migration as it continues to struggle with the ongoing migrants’ crisis.

On the other side, the US will amplify the protests using social media, the Internet, and traditional TV news. President Trump may ask for new sanctions at the UN, while ‘supporting’ the protestors. The American intelligence agencies will continue their work underground and British intelligence will do the same, while officially, both countries will ask for the respect of human rights. The KSA, the UAE, and Israel will work together (despite the Jerusalem issue) to exacerbate the protests and push towards a Regime fall and the fragmentation of Iran, their common enemy.

What will be the outcome of these protests?

Even though no one can accurately predict the outcome, some predictions can be made… although there is always more than meets the eye. The protests may last months. They will be fueled by social media and by foreign powers, namely the US, the UK, Israel, the KSA and the UAE. The Regime will continue to downplay the importance of the protests and will not give them prominence (at least officially).

Security services will intervene surgically here and there to neutralize opposition and will leave the movement to slow down until its end. Meanwhile, they will infiltrate the movement to understand its dynamics and spot its leaders to isolate them and to indict them as ‘anti-Revolutionary’ aka ‘anti-Regime.’

Will there be a rare alignment of planets to have the much-sought-after Regime change in Iran? Only time will tell…

Finally, why is a China expert analyzing Iranian protests?

Comparing China and Iran gives a better understanding of authoritarianism based on cultural values. Both countries exhibit various similarities. Indeed, in 1949, China’s communists took power and overthrew Chiang Kai-shek. Much to the discontent of the US, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China whose values are based on Legalism. Thirty years later, in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, with the support of many groups opposed to the Shah (Islamists, Marxists, and Constitutionalists), overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was supported by the US. He proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran whose values are based on Ithnā Ashariyyah  (the most significant branch of Shia Islam).

Both China and Iran have authoritarian regimes as indicated in the latest Freedom House Report (2017), scoring respectively 15 and 17 (out of 100). These regimes rely on their guardians: China has the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), formerly the Chinese Red Army, which is under the command of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and who preserves the ideology and protects the country from foreign interference. Iran has the Revolutionary Guards under the control of the mullahs and who protects the country’s Islamic Republic System while preserving the country from foreign interference. And while, in China, communism is the vehicle for their ideology, Mullahs are the carriers of the Islamic ideology.

On top of this, both countries share an ancient history, having known the succession of several dynasties, civilizations that have dominated the world at one time in history and that have made significant cultural and scientific contributions in many respects.

That said, China may serve as a model of modernization to Iran. The Middle Kingdom is a non-Western country that shares the same distrust of the West in general and the US in particular, whose cultural values, millenary history, authoritarianism, and battle against corruption make it the perfect candidate from which to draw inspiration.

Both countries’ Achilles’ heel is that the progressing levels of living standards are changing so rapidly that the two regimes can only offer a portion of them to their population. This is where domestic demands with regards to social rights will become more pressing, especially with people being more educated and connected. The two countries are not safe from an ‘Arab Spring’ that will come through social media despite all the censorship and the capabilities of their respective (cyber) security services. The wind of change is a reality; how it will blow and how it will be handled, that’s another story!

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

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