By Tom Shaw
The weeklong Iranian protests caught the headlines in the global press. In Western media outlets, one word dominated the discussion: ‘spontaneous’. As Mark Doran so brilliantly demonstrated, the implications underlying the use of ‘spontaneous’ are typical of the worst excesses of the hawkish interventionist agenda. These implications are threefold.
First, ‘spontaneous’ implies that the protests are a sign of Iran’s impending collapse; that the camel’s back has been broken; that the Iranian people suddenly can’t take it any longer. To what extent is this true? It is certainly the case that Iran’s economic situation is far from healthy. President Rouhani’s austerity has succeeded in bringing down from 40% in 2013 to under 10% this year, but unemployment remains high, especially among the young. Over half of Iranians are under 35 and the demand for jobs is outstripping supply. The sanctions relief that followed the 2015 Nuclear Agreement has not brought the expected level of economic growth, in part because of continued US sanctions through other means.
However, there is little indication of political weakness. The internal divisions of the protestors were in part a result of the breadth of Rouhani’s government. While there was some outspoken criticism of Iran’s involvement in Iraq and the government’s support of Hezbollah, opinion polls show that the public is behind Iranian action against ISIS. In fact, the main source of political criticism Rouhani faces concerns his relations with the West. Trump’s election and his aggressive rhetoric towards Iran have undermined Rouhani’s credibility and strengthened the case of the hardliner conservatives. It is no coincidence that the protests started in Mashhad, the home of Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani’s conservative opponent in last year’s election. Overall, the limited – though much-exaggerated – scale of the protests (only a few hundred protested outside Tehran University, compared to the thousands who regularly turn up to pro-Palestine rallies) shows that the Iranian regime does not face a significant challenge from its population, despite their undeniable economic frailties. The recent protests are another chapter in Iran’s civil rights movement, rather than a revolutionary outburst geared at regime change.
Second, the idea that Iran is teetering on the brink of popular revolt goes a long way to legitimise intervention and regime change. In the face of extreme resistance from Russia, the US chaired a discussion in the UN Security Council focussing on the protests in Iran. Iran denounced this as ‘preposterous bullying’ and argued that by interfering in Iran’s internal affairs the US was operating outside its mandate. There is a case for this: one can only imagine how Washington would have reacted had Russia chaired a similar discussion on the much larger protests that swept America after Trump’s election. Russian and Iranian opposition to an American proposal is hardly noteworthy, of course, but the discussion itself saw the UK and France distance themselves from Washington’s inflammatory stance. The French representative’s warning that ‘we must be wary of any attempts to exploit this crisis for personal ends’ was a thinly veiled jab at Trump, who had tweeted ‘Time For Change!’ during the protests.
US ambitions of toppling a democratically elected government show a disregard not only for international law, but also for basic Iranian politics. Blinded by their delight that Iran’s government is facing opposition, the US hawks have failed to recognise that this opposition is not made up of pro-Western liberals who, if put into power, would snuggle up to Washington. Instead, the few leaders who did emerge were right-wing conservatives who oppose the Nuclear Deal and favour a more confrontational approach. This is not a repeat of the 2009 Green Movement, something made blindingly obvious by the way the Green leaders disavowed the protests. The Iranian government most ready to work with the West is the one already in power.
Third, the word ‘spontaneous’ removes all possibility that Iran’s rivals in the Middle-East and the West encouraged, or indeed, caused the protests. This is either ignorant or, more worrying, deliberately disingenuous. There is a precedent linking public unrest with regime change. 65 years ago, the CIA and MI6 whipped up protests to oust the Iranian Prime Minister, Mossadegh. We have already established that several countries want regime change again in Iran, and there have been repeated rumblings in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh that suggest the battle is being taken up a notch. Rex Tillerson, normally a lone bastion of calm amid the Fire and Fury of Trump’s administration, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee ‘Our policy towards Iran is to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.’ Mohammed bin Salman gave an interview on Saudi state TV in which he stated that his government ‘will work so the battle is there in Iran’. Though limited, there is genuine unrest in Iran and the protests reflect that. However, to suggest that our intelligence services didn’t play a part in supporting and politicising this dissatisfaction is naïve. It is damning that mainstream media outlets did not include these quotations in their reports of the protests. Journalism has an important role to play in international politics. Across Europe and America, the public saw through the justification of the Iraq War because the press delved deeper than official explanations and held governments to account. It must do so again.
Image ‘Geoff Livingston’ via Flickr