Has Iranian regime repression Succeeded?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

News agencies are reporting that on Thursday, Iran’s wave of protests died down.

If so (and for all we know they could start back up again), here are some reasons.

The regime raised the cost of protest, speaking of executing protesters. While that threat might not have deterred the dedicated dissidents, it would peel off the less committed and reduce the amount of people power available to them.

The rallies, often in remote small towns, took the regime and its security forces by surprise, and challenged local police deputies.

Over time, the regime has proven able to mobilize police, street thugs loyal to the ayatollahs (the paramilitary ‘basij’), and the Revolutionary Guards. Opinion polling over the past 25 years shows that about 15% of the population strongly supports the hard liners, and that 15% can be mobilized for counter demonstrations. A succesful movement has to outnumber the 15%.

Trump, Pence and Haley made it easy for the regime to paint the protesters as foreign agents by sqawking publically their support for the dissidents.

These protests in some ways resembled IMF riots, which break out when the Bretton Woods institutions convince governments to reduce subsidies. The rising price of staples contributed to the unrest, as did reductions in gasoline subsidies.

IMF riots typically subside when the government restores some subsidies and helps those at the very bottom of the economy.

Historically in Iran, successful revolutions have comprised clerics, middle class intellectuals, and the traditional big merchants. In 2009 it was mainly the intelligentsia who came out. The gold merchants in the bazaar only went on strike in 2010, when it was too late.

This time the center of gravity was the working class in small provincial municipalities.

Some observers rejoiced that the protesters were not reformers but were calling for the overthrow of the regime and were cursing its high officers. But reform would have been more practical and a more promising platform for attracting other social classes. In a rentier oil state a lot of people depend on government salaries and contracts.

The protests revealed a rich vein of profound discontent at the grassroots level. The regime has been challenged. The future depends on whether the ayatollahs rise to that challenge.

Posted in Featured,Iran | 13 Responses | Print |

13 Responses

  1. In addition to all the excellent points that you make about why the protests in Iran have died down, at least for now, another main reason is that the protests did not have a leader and were in the form of riots rather than “protest movements” with clear demands. They started as the result of a stupid miscalculation by the hardliners, especially by President Rouhani’s defeated rival in the last election and his supporters in Mashhad, in order to weaken Rouhani. In his latest budget bill revealed in December, Rouhani for the first time listed the huge sums that go to religious and paramilitary foundations that are outside government control, many of them in Mashhad and associated with the shrine of Imam Reza.

    In his comments about the budget Rouhani openly said that the government had no control over 200 out of 360 trillion tumans of the budget. In other words, more than half of the budget goes to religious foundations or other organizations that come under the direct control of Ayatollah Khamenei. This greatly embarrassed those organizations that benefit by that inappropriate distribution of national resources, and the mullahs tried to turn the tables on Rouhani, but it soon backfired and people’s anger turned against them.

    I also believe that foreign interference and the enthusiasm of the neocons in the US Administration and outside it, to celebrate premature regime change, had a major impact on turning even the conservative sectors of the society against the protests. Many hardliners began speaking out reminding the people of the events in Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere and that soon cooled the zeal for a national uprising. The government succeeded in organizing huge pro-regime demonstrations throughout the country, which showed that it still has the ability to mobilize the crowds. It now remains to be seen whether Rouhani can use the hard-liners’ deception against them or whether the securitization of the society will weaken the government.

    However, your last paragraph absolutely nails it. The protests were another example of people’s profound unhappiness with the clerical establishment. It certainly is not going to be the last mass uprising. The crunch time will come when Ayatollah Khamenei leaves the scene and the battle begins in earnest between the hardliners and the reformers about the future direction of the regime.

  2. It may useful to note the spontaneous, organic nature of these protests, versus the bigger, more organized urban movement of 2009.

    Social media was apparently key in 2009, but not a driver this time. The current movement seems to reflect a deeper base and underlying power, but lacking the organizational competence needed to carry through.

    I’m thinking that the elite participation needed here was thwarted by its reliance on social media.

    The reliance on social media may have discouraged the broader social integration necessary to be effective.

  3. Thank you Juan for the historical insight. But, I have a sincere question. What does the word “regime” mean? Is it a system of government or a set of people (those who govern and their supporters), a word reserved for those who we don’t like, so on. Why is that we use the word administration, government or if we want to single out the powerful we use words like the Establishment, elite, deep state but we never use the word regime when it comes to USA? It seems to me that there is a system of government in Iran. We should call it what it is; it is definitely more than Ayatollahs, or derogatorily speaking mullahs, so on.

    • I often have the same objection to the way that the term government is used to refer to some friendly governments that are more appropriately regimes, such as the minority cliques that rule over large populations without a democratic mandate, such as Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf littoral states and even the Israeli government that does not represent the interests of the occupied people, and the governments that have been elected.

      Whatever one may think of the Iranian government, it is elected in fairly competitive elections, and even the Islamic Republic itself came into being as the result of a massive popular revolution and people voted almost unanimously for it in a referendum a few months after the revolution. One cannot say the same for any of the regimes that I mentioned above.

      However, I also sometimes use the term regime to refer to the Iranian government, partly because it refers to itself as “nezam”, which can be translated as regime or system without having a pejorative meaning, because it regards itself as more than just a government but as a system of thought and ideology. Furthermore, the way that the Islamic Republic has developed since the revolution with the monopolization of power mainly in the hands of the clerics, it is acting more and more like a regime than a government. Probably the term “system” would be a better translation of “nezam”, but it does not have the same connotations in English.

    • The importance of rhetorical framing is more than just interesting: it is essential to legitimize your perspective and delegitimize The Other.

      We could get a list going, if only to inoculate ourselves or trip our ears to listen more critically.

      Two biggies are, of course, terrorism, and the distinction between “their” nationalism and “our” patriotism.

  4. In a more perfect world, the Iranian regime would take note of the people’s demands, and start making appropriate reforms, long overdue. Why give nations like the US/Israel/Saudi Arabia the opportunity to keep picking on it? Nikki Hayley looks like a drama queen, when she keeps ignoring Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, and keeps harping on Iran’s. The world can see right through the charade.

    • Worse than that, all these years of the factional abuse of the term “human rights” has finally reached critical mass. Trump clearly ran on an anti-human rights platform, against human rights for minorities and women at home; and his supporters don’t believe in universal anything. But I could say the same about large numbers of Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Filipinos, Russians, and Indians. Before this year, human rights was a noble concept abused by its use as a stick to beat one’s enemies. Now, it’s just a limp rope. It’s dead.

  5. It seems to me that the people demonstrating are likely to be the sort of people who voted for Ahmadinejad rather than Rouhani. It’s misleading to talk about the ‘regime of Ayatollahs’ since it is composite: there are conservatives and hardliners. The demonstrations were more against Rouhani than against the supreme leader. Why would the US endorse that kind of protest except out of ignorance of what the protesters wanted?

    • The schemesters don’t care. They know Washington can afford to cheer on the rebellion – and then when it reinstalls someone like Ahmadinejad, suddenly the rebellion is forgotten and Washington can say the new leader and his inevitable abrogation of the nuclear deal is just proof of the inherent evil of Shia “insolence” that requires US invasion. You think the US public will notice this Orwellian flip-flop?

    • Your first observation highlights the upshot of this episode: if these people represented the conservative base in Iran (as parallel constituencies seem to do around the world), what does that imply for the clerics power going forward?

  6. It is not possible to reform the Iranian system as the only reforms that would actually make a difference would be synonymous with regime change and regimes are rarely fond of changing themselves.

  7. Last week there were calls for demonstrations in more than 50 cities, today’s calls for demonstrations covered more than 150 cities.
    Asalouyeh petrochemical workers (phases 1&2) have gone on strike, plus Sugarcane Workers have also called for peaceful, non-violent demonstration on Sunday January 7th.
    Has the state really succeed?

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