Vicken Cheterian

Iranian Surprise

The sudden explosion of demonstrations in Iran puts us in front of a paradox: while the Iranian authorities celebrated a series of victories in 2017 and unprecedented projection of power abroad, we suddenly discover their internal fragility. This contradiction should at least put us in front of the Socrates dilemma: the self-conscious humbleness of the limits of our knowledge. At best we should take note and learn some of its lessons: that local politics matters. This element of surprise should be at the center of our study of the Iranian events, in case we intend to learn some of its lessons. 

The year of 2017 witnessed further expansion of Iranian power abroad, a trend that was already there before, yet reinforced by the fight against the “Islamic State” (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. More than any other country fighting ISIS, more than the great powers such as the US and Russia, Iran is the great winner against ISIS: while the US used its airpower and several thousand “special forces” in both Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS, and while Russia used massive bombing and several thousand kontraktniki (ground troops serving on contractual basis), yet it was the thousands of pro-Iranian militias, whether the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, or various Shiite militias in Syria, that provided the foot soldiers. It will be those paramilitary forces that coordinate their activities with the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that will remain on the ground and project Iranian state influence throughout the Middle East. 

That Iran had severe socio-economic tensions, and large part of the population was openly critical about it was well known. The 2015 “nuclear deal” with Barak Obama administration and leading powers raised high hopes that the country will open up, investments will arrive, and the economy will get fresh oxygen. All that did not happen. Yet, the Iranian authorities could finger the blame on the new American leadership, its hostility towards Iran and threats of new wars. The never-ending tweets of the American president provided constant media material to insist that whatever shortcoming inside Iran was caused by foreign antagonism.

The start and spread of the popular demonstrations since Thursday, December 28, is therefore a source of double surprise. Yet, soaring prices of basic goods ignited protests that spread like wildfire. Slogans quickly turned political: “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life to Iran” turned the successes of the Iranian authorities to criticism.  

In case one would attempt to place the current events in a historic context, then it is not in line with the “Green Revolution” of 2009, but rather the Arab explosions of 2011. The mass protests in Iran in 2009 were similar to the events that came to be known as the “colour revolutions” in a number of post-Soviet states. It was the outcome of contested elections, where opposition candidates accused the authorities of fraud. The protest, therefore, remained very much within the legal framework, but it was the result of one part of the elite accusing conservative ones of falsifying elections. The 2009 events ended with the success of repression: opposition candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrests, and many activists were arrested and served jail terms. The social movement eventually died down, but its causes did not evaporate.  

The current events are of a different nature: there are no contested elections, but rather it is price hikes that ignited protests. The spread of protests throughout Iran in 48 hours testifies to the depth of popular discontent. Lastly, the slogans of the demonstrators seem radical, in the sense that they are demanding not only change in social and economic policies, but are demanding regime change. The popular anger expressed on the Iranian streets does not seem to have a leadership, center of coordination, and a clear shape, making it difficult to negotiate with. 

Nor should one underestimate the support the Iranian regime enjoys. Iran today is not the Iran of the Pahlavis: since the 1979 Revolution the major transformation that occurred is the building of a modern, bureaucratic state that has a major stake in the economy. It is this exact model that it is being contested by part of the population, yet it also provides the regime of supporters. Nor should one underestimate its determination of self-preservation. 

The complete control of the Iranian authorities over the political as well as political space makes them vulnerable to failure. The elimination of the opposition in 2009 – even if this opposition was within the ruling elite itself – has only led to the radicalization of the movement, making it leaderless, and unpredictable. 

The Iranian surprise is full of lessons: that politics is first and foremost local. Geopolitical reading of events, so popular in our times, will fail to understand that. This should come with a warning to all those who think that foreign conquests can make-up with failures back home. The Russian President Vladimir Putin should be re-making his calculations after having eliminated any real opposition before the upcoming presidential elections of March this year. It should also concern the American elite, which has just made historic tax-cuts and with it massive cuts in social services while increasing military spending.  

How the Iranian drama will work out is difficult to imagine, yet no one can under estimate its impact over the entire Middle East and world politics.