Last week protests broke out in the city of Isfahan, spreading to Iran’s remaining cities, including the capital, Tehran.
The riots have given voice to calls for socio-economic change amid rising deprivation and unemployment among young people and a sense of injustice among poorer Iranians. These groups have suffered the brunt of inefficient economic management and the effects of the embargo imposed by international forces on Iran for many years.
The protests have revealed the vast gap between educated Iranian youth and successive Iranian governments, both conservative and reformist.
“This latest wave of protests in Iran will most likely be resolved sooner or later, but will force the authorities to pay more attention to the pulse of the Iranian street.”
A fully fledged revolution?
Three actors have responded to this political crisis at lightning speed, each with its own stakes and calculations, in an attempt to turn this relatively limited social mobilisation into a fully fledged revolution against the government.
First are the Gulf states, which have fiercely pushed back against the Arab Spring, using money and the media to crush the uprisings, going so far as to engineer a military coup in Egypt in 2013.
Ironically, these states are dubbing the riots the “Persian Spring”. In other words, what is forbidden for the Arabs is permissible, even desirable, for Iranians.
The second is Israel, which, from the first months of political transformations that swept across the region in 2011, had labelled them “the Arab winter”, seeing them as an existential threat and a danger to its efforts to promote itself as the sole democracy in a Middle Eastern sea of dictatorships.
The third is the Trump administration, which had in the past shown no interest in democratic change in the region, instead devoting its energy to annulling the nuclear agreement with Iran and repositioning itself in the Middle East after successive US withdrawals since its defeat in Iraq.
Its UN representative had rushed to put the Iranian protests on the agenda of the Security Council, an institution which only a few days ago was denounced by her, accusing it of being hostile to Israel and threatening to suspend its funding.
The mobilisation of Iranian youth has no doubt many reasons, given the rise in marginalisation, unemployment, poverty rates and living costs. The main driving force behind this wave seems to be poor and marginalised social sectors, which did not put forward any clear political demands.
Unlike the protests that had erupted in 2009 and were spearheaded by the reformists, this latest movement doesn’t appear to be led by any specific political group.
The rhetoric adopted by the US and its allies lacks any credibility, for the simple reason that this administration is the least qualified to promote democracy and human rights in the region, given its extensive financial transactions and involvement in arms and oil deals in the Middle East (as demonstrated by Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, from which he returned laden with contracts and gifts).
“Sooner or later, the Iranian government will be forced to allow greater openness towards a more liberal Islamic approach. Perhaps the current protests will take the country further in this direction.”
More importantly, only a few hundred miles from Iran, a bloody military coup had trampled over the people’s will, imposed absolute rule, placed an elected president behind bars, and subjected him to a slow death policy, while America and the West look on silently, even approvingly.
This nauseating hypocrisy – supporting our dictator friends, aiding and abetting them while they trample upon our much-vaunted values of human rights and democracy, while using these hollow principles as whips with which to flagellate our adversaries – has become plain for all to see in the Middle East and beyond.
Evidently, the political situation in Iran is far from ideal and the government still imposes many political and social restrictions on Iranian society.
The pulse of the street
Yet the situation is undeniably superior to that reigning in much of the region, dominated either by military rulers unconstrained by a constitution, parliament or political institutions (as is the case in Egypt, Syria, Eastern Libya, Sudan and others), or by monarchs, who enjoy absolute power and wealth, dictating the fate of their people from the cradle to the grave in the name of divine authority or a “natural right to rule” passed down from father to son.
The truth is that whatever our reservations with the Iranian system, it is more democratic than those of Washington’s Arab allies in the region.
Washington would be better off challenging absolute theocracies and brutal dictatorships, rather than confronting a semi-democracy in a region in which tyranny and absolutism are the norm.
This means introducing constitutions that respect universal standards, halting incidents of arbitrary detention and torture, and introducing free elections – at least at municipal council level, before we can even begin to talk about elected parliaments or governments, a fantasy under governments that hold the destinies of their nations in their iron grip and see any criticism of rulers as an act of treachery punishable by death.
Democracy and theocracy
This latest wave of protests in Iran will most likely be resolved sooner or later, but will force the authorities to pay more attention to the pulse of the Iranian street. This will force the Islamic Republic to allow more political openness and lift restrictions on public and private freedoms, given that it its political legitimacy is derived from a popular revolution.
Since Mohammad Khatami’s term, reformists have made significant strides towards greater political and cultural openness, despite the pressures imposed by a harsh US blockade and extensive record of Iranian interventions in the region, from Iraq to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.
The Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah’s rule in 1979 established a government that combines both democracy and theocracy.
Sooner or later, the Iranian government will be forced to allow greater openness towards a more liberal Islamic approach. Perhaps the current protests will take the country further in this direction.
The most urgent task for the Americans, if they are serious about calling for freedom, is to impose a minimal level of democracy on their allies in the region, from bloodthirsty generals to authoritarian kings and emirs.
Top photo: Iranian pro-government supporters in Mashhad hold posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a rally after authorities declared the end of unrest on 4 January 2018 (AFP)