Under siege, are Iran’s rulers likely to do more than survive?

Why We Wrote This

What do Iranians want from their leaders – just to do a better job ruling, or fundamental change? In the latest mass protests, one Iranian analyst says, “the voice of the people” is starting to emerge.

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Iranian police officers take position while protesters gather in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 11, 2020, to remember victims of a Ukrainian airplane shot down by an Iranian missile.

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The Islamic Republic of Iran is reeling amid a roller coaster of shocking events and fluctuating emotions.

In the aftermath of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, Iranians rallied around the flag, filling the streets in a mass outpouring of grief and anti-American fervor that the country’s leadership held up as a sign of support. Then came the crash of the Ukrainian airliner, with the death of all 176 aboard.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ delayed admission it had shot the plane down in error spurred people into the streets once again, this time with calls for the resignation of Iran’s supreme leader. The protests represent a deepening of anti-regime pressures, now coming from a broader socioeconomic base, as the current array of crises effectively crosses Iran’s social and economic divides.

According to one veteran Iranian analyst in Tehran, university students taking a leading role in the protests have hit on something significant. “The expressions of the students are those of the minds of millions of Iranians,” the analyst says. “Something is boiling, something is starting to emerge as the voice of the people, as a focus on what they want – actually, on what we don’t want.”

In the aftermath of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, Iranians rallied around the flag, filling the streets in a mass outpouring of grief and anti-American fervor that the country’s leadership held up as a sign of continued support.

So, too, were the expressions of national pride in the retaliatory missiles fired at U.S. bases in Iraq.

But then came the crash of the Ukrainian airliner, with the death of all 176 aboard, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ delayed admission it had shot the plane down in error. The moment of flag-waving support passed as quickly as it arrived.

The stunning admission sent outraged Iranians back into the streets. Layered over it all is a deep, abiding dissatisfaction with the government’s stewardship of Iran’s U.S.-sanction-afflicted economy, which just weeks earlier – following an overnight fuel price hike – had spawned its own cycle of mass protest and brutal repression.

Amid the roller coaster of shocking events and fluctuating emotions, the Islamic Republic is reeling. And questions are being raised anew by Iranians about its legitimacy and whether its leaders can cope with the multitude of stresses from within and without, including new U.S. and European pressures.

Inside Iran, the protesters’ slogans are as radical as ever.

“You incompetent leader! Resign, resign!” rang one chant, referring to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Our enemy is right here! They are lying, it’s not America!”

The latest protests represent a deepening of anti-regime pressures, now coming from a broader socio-economic base. Some introspection can be expected, analysts say, but the Islamic Republic’s primary instinct – successfully achieved for 40 years – is for survival.

“The level of pressure is unprecedented, because it is multi-layered,” says Adnan Tabatabai, an Iran analyst and head of the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient.

“What is clear, after the November protests, the killing of Qassem Soleimani, and even the downing of this plane, is that the political self of the Islamic Republic is awakened, so there will be lots of debates,” says Mr. Tabatabai. “I don’t expect any meaningful opening of the political landscape, but people will at least want to see some measures of accountability for decision-making circles.

“When people pour into the streets, the anger that they have – it is obviously accumulated anger, which explodes out of people, and leads to slogans that are maximalist,” says Mr. Tabatabai. “It’s quite understandable, but there is no real way to work with these slogans, because the [Islamic system] will not say, ‘Oh there are segments of our society which are calling for us to leave, so let’s think about leaving.’ That’s not going to happen.”

Protests among poor and rich

Still, analysts say the current array of crises effectively cross Iran’s social and economic divides. Even as protests in November involved the lower classes and targeted President Hassan Rouhani, the new ones – spurred by revelations about a coverup of the plane crash – involve the middle class and aim at the top leadership and IRGC for incompetence and lying.

Regime loyalists and even Guardsmen are disappointed and angry, Iranians say, that officials for days blamed mechanical failure for the crash, and repeatedly ruled out the IRGC mistakenly shooting down the plane. As evidence grew, from video, and photographs, and Western satellite data, the IRGC came clean with emotional apologies. Mr. Rouhani called it a “disastrous mistake.”

Amid the turmoil, three top female anchors on state-run television channels have resigned, with one posting on Instagram: “Forgive me for telling you lies from state TV for 13 years.”

At one university, students were filmed as they avoided stepping on U.S. and Israeli flags painted on the ground. President Donald Trump issued praise for the “wonderful Iranian protesters” – and added to his “maximum pressure” campaign by imposing new sanctions.

Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Kimia Alizadeh of Iran celebrates after winning the bronze medal in a women's Taekwondo competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 18, 2016. Iran's only female Olympic medalist, she said she defected from the Islamic Republic in a blistering online letter in which she described herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.”

While the risk of immediate war with the United States eased, Britain, France, and Germany added to pressures Tuesday by triggering, for the first time by Europe, a dispute mechanism built into the Iran nuclear deal that, if not resolved, could lead to a snapback of U.N. sanctions. They were reacting to Iran’s announcement last week that it would no longer adhere to enrichment limitations, steps taken because the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018.

Domestically, criticism of Iran swerved into the sports world, as well. The country’s only female Olympic medalist defected, the third sports personality in three months to leave Iran.

“I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran whom they’ve been playing for years. ... I wore whatever they told me and repeated whatever they ordered,” said Kimia Alizadeh, who won a bronze medal in Taekwondo at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“None of us matter to them, we are just tools,” she wrote in a statement, adding her condolences to the people of Iran, “who are always in mourning.”

Amid the mounting pressures, analysts note the Islamic Republic has faced crises in the past and always found a degree of flexibility to ease pressure inside, or deescalate it with enemies like the U.S. and Israeli outside.

The Iran-Iraq War, for example, ended in 1988 when Iran accepted a cease-fire, ironically after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 aboard.

Video has now surfaced of Ayatollah Khamenei, then Iran’s president, reacting to that event. “You shot down our plane ... and now you come out simply saying ‘We made a mistake.’ Seriously? You shut your mouth,” he says, using an offensive term in Persian.

Some protesters now hold banners using those exact words, to criticize their leader’s response this time: “You made a mistake? Just shut your mouth.”

“They don’t learn their lessons”

Another moment of what Mr. Khamenei called “heroic flexibility” came in 2013, when Iran decided to join negotiations that led to the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Likewise, analysts say the assassination of General Soleimani could be used as a pretext to make changes, such as opening the political space – especially with elections to Parliament due on Feb. 21.

“If they are clever, yes, but they are so obstinate,” says an Iranian analyst in Europe who requested anonymity. But already this week several key reformist lawmakers were barred from running again for office.

“This is the thing with ideologues, [they] keep closing their eyes and their ears and put their head in the sand until it is almost too late, and then do a last-minute turnaround,” the analyst says. “They’ve done this again and again. They don’t learn their lessons, unfortunately.”

As Iran’s leaders measure the need for change, students have led the way in challenging their legitimacy and truthfulness – in part because so many of those on the doomed aircraft were their colleagues, flying to Canada for further studies.

“These days, Iran is full of sadness and mourning. We wash away blood with more blood, we add pain upon pain. ... We experience one crisis after another,” wrote the students of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, where the protests have been noisiest.

“Today we are surrounded by ‘evil’ from every quarter,” the students wrote in a statement, noting that government economic policies and “political suppression” brought people to the “end of their tether,” only to find a new shadow of war overhead.

The statement declares that the U.S. presence in the Middle East “has produced nothing but increasing insecurity and chaos,” and that their duty as citizens is to be against both the “oppressive government” [of Iran] and “imperialist power” [of America].

Voice of the people

According to one veteran Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be identified further, the students address common concerns.

“The expressions of the students are those of the minds of millions of Iranians,” the analyst says. “Something is boiling, something is starting to emerge as the voice of the people, as a focus on what they want – actually, on what we don’t want.”

One bright spot for Iran’s leaders was the nationwide turnout for General Soleimani’s funeral, which he says was “impressive.”

“I think it showed the power of the Islamic Republic, how this regime survived for the last 40 years,” says the analyst. “Their base of power is because of this. There is a huge social base that goes to elections. ... But the bad economy, the sanctions, has made lots of these people suffer. So where will it show? The people are in trouble, where will it come out?”

The answer to that question will determine how Iran’s leaders can, once again, solve their problems, despite the current erosion of legitimacy.

“Honestly, it doesn’t even matter if they are legitimate or not,” says the Iran analyst in Europe. “The only thing that matters is, can they get Iran out of this mess? That’s all people care about, they don’t care about legitimate or not. Can they fix this mess? That’s it.”

To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.

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