Global leaders, journalists, and activists of every stripe have tried to hijack the protests in Iran for their own agenda. So what is really happening there and who is behind it?
Protests or riots; middle class or working class; reformists or rejectionists; democracy or social injustice?
The root cause of our failure to understand the events in Iran lies in one word: disconnect.
An internal disconnect between the Iranian political class and the people, and an external disconnect between the people of Iran and the analysts that claim to know about Iran.
“When the fire goes out, you'll start feeling the cold. You'll wake up whether you want to or not,” wrote the Japanese author in his book After the Quake, a popular book among Iranians.
The protests sweeping the country, just like a series of big and small earthquakes, have woken the Iranian political and social class to some of the frustrated voices within society.
While the world is supporting ‘the liberation of the Iranian people’, one wonders what this really means.
The following is an attempt to explain and highlight the current ‘disconnect’ of the protestors by putting it into an economic and social context.
Are people protesting for democracy and human rights?
Such jargon makes for beautiful and inspiring headlines, or imaginary reports from sensational and mostly exiled journalists and activists.
I’m afraid, however, the reality will disappoint you. For starters, you might want to distance yourself from the conventional liberal understanding of the idea of ‘resistance’.
At least from what we hear in chants and slogans, this is not what the majority of the protesters are demanding.
The unrest started in opposition to the government’s economic policies. High levels of unemployment, the rising cost of living and corruption led many in the northern city of Mashhad to protest. This proved to be the spark that other provincial towns followed.
As the early shock about the protests dissipated, there is a growing realisation that the working class are primarily behind the protests.
In other words, the disenfranchised and fragmented working class - and the fed-up lower-middle class pushed into increasing economic hardship, are behind this.
You might also want to remember that there is an established semi-democracy in Iran.
Less than a year ago, more than 40 million people participated in the presidential election, and 57 percent voted to continue Hassan Rouhani’s government of “hope and policy”.
Can all that overwhelming hope have suddenly evaporated? It seems unlikely.
The triangular Iranian political landscape
It’s almost fair to say that post-2009 the Iranian political landscape is divided between conservatives, reformists, and moderates.
Conservatives, longing for an opportunity to go after the Rouhani government, supported the protests at the beginning. When things escalated, however, they changed course and started searching for hidden and foreign hands.
Reformists, on the other hand, usually play the role of the victim, giving themselves credit for being the only voice for change inside the country. After some confusion during the first few days, they seem to have suddenly found their voice. Their passivity and disconnect in wider society should make them rethink what it means to believe in reformist values.
And moderates? Well, many, including the left had warned about the inevitable consequences of Rouhani’s neoliberal policies: a push for post-sanction economic reforms through trade liberalisation, privatisation, and relying on tourism and foreign investment.
Strangely Rouhani is not exactly a neoliberal politician but his administration has charted a neoliberal approach to economic development, adding to the sense of a disconnect with the working class.
There is one point to be optimistic about; neither the moderates, reformists or conservatives are rejecting the people’s right to protest and they agree that the Iranian people have legitimate grievances. This is a rare occurence in contemporary Iranian history.
The great Twitter war that never was
One thousand voices, a thousand and one leaders, a thousand and two experts.
Twitter is considered as the social media of the elite, certainly in the Iranian context. A quick gander through the Twitter sphere in Farsi is enough to give you a small insight into the rancorous confusion amongst officials, opinion leaders, and other elites on all sides.
Using vulgarity, attacking, blaming, and speculating, and hopelessly accusing each other. Where are the protesters? Not on twitter that's for sure.
Movement, protests, or riots?
Notwithstanding that the leaderless unrest might become the start of movement, it’s extremely difficult, almost impossible, to label the present unrest as "a movement".
When the 2009 protests happened there were hundreds of thousands of protestors — at the largest rallies even a million — participants during the Green movement. They had clear demands, well-defined political objectives, and, more importantly, leadership.
Its leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi whose name is completely absent these days, called for filling the gap between the middle class and the working class, and “returning to the people”. Today, after 8 years, he's still under house arrest.
Trump and allies
Those like Trump, Paul Ryan, Nikki Haley, "liked the Iranian people so much" that they decided to ban all of them from entering the United States.
Which is also why we have to be cautious of international proclamations for the Iranian people, who they take little care to get to know.
Who’s singing Abu Ata?
There is a Persian proverb that roughly translates as “when the water goes up, even the frog sings Abu Ata" - a traditional Iranian rhythmic mode.
It perfectly fits the opportunistic positions of radical exiled anti-regime groups and organisations such as Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). This autocratic militant semi-Marxist, semi-Islamist organisation claims itself as a government in exile supported by the United States, has committed waves of killings inside and outside Iran.
Also, the pro-monarchy communities have come out of the woodwork to claim the protests as their own. Yet they conveniently forget the rule of the former king - a hardline ethno-nationalist dictator and a huge Hitler admirer during World War II.
What should Rouhani's government and the Iranian state do?
They’re not foreign agents, spies, or enemies as have been labelled by some officials (which only goes to prove the disconnect between politicians and protestors).
They are people. This is the red line no one must cross. If people have the right to protest, then people’s safety and security is the state’s duty and responsibility.
Stating that people have the right to protest is not enough.
Rouhani should address the nation directly, and make sure they know they are not being ignored anymore, and that he’s accountable and is listening to them.
He should give priority to people’s needs and demands, not sacrifice the expectations of the working class, the oppressed, the poor to protect the reconstructed relations between Iran and the international community by any means possible.
Secondly, they should secure the free and transparent flow of information through the internet, especially Telegram, Twitter and Instagram, and through national TV and print media as well.
Third, he needs to present a concrete plan for fighting corruption and should work to reform and democratise the budget plan, increase social freedoms, defend and empower labour syndicates, civil society organisations, teachers, journalists and other associations and communities. It would mean that in situations like the current unrest, their leaders can follow people’s demands and negotiate with the government.
What can you do as an active global citizen?
Due to what I described as a ‘disconnect’, inside and outside Iran, everyone seems to be supporting the Iranian people, but at the same time, nobody is supporting the Iranian people.
So how to fight this disconnect? Connect! Connect to people, connect them to independent information, connect yourself to history, context, facts; hear protester’s grievances and the reasoning behind it, hear the voice of the unheard, and echo it; expose injustice, hypocrisy, and double standards; avoid vague opinion, and maybe calm down, it’s going to be a long ride.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to email@example.com