If the authorities in Iran have power to put down protests each time they spring up, the regime’s greatest weapon – fear – appears to have lost its power.
A fresh squeal of political uprisings engulfed the Middle East this year, as if to complete the work that the 2011 Arab Spring left unfinished. They have stretched so far across the region that they have shattered even Iran’s illusion that, by wielding unprecedented power abroad and intimidating authority at home, it was immune. But the events of the past few months have left the Islamic Republic exposed to the same political forces buffeting the rest of the creaky regimes nearby. The unrest began in April when Sudanese protesters helped usher longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir out of power, and then stayed in the streets to demand civilian rule. In Algeria, the aged autocrat, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was forced out in April as well, and demonstrators have continued to show up daily to press for systemic change.
September saw scattered protests in Egypt against the corruption of the state and its military chiefs, a display nothing short of remarkable in a country whose iron-fisted regime has brutally cracked down on all forms of protest. Lebanese demonstrators have turned out since October 2019 to demand the fall of a sectarian spoils system whose corruption has drawn the country into deepening dysfunction. And in Iraq, mass demonstrations that also began in October have turned violent as citizens demand an end to corruption, failed governance and the neighbouring Iran that wields over the country’s leaders. What these protests share is the expression of deep anger citizens feel at their governments’ failures to deliver the most basic services while political leaders enrich themselves; the unaccountability and unresponsiveness of their politicians; and the abuses suffered by ordinary citizens — especially those who dare to speak out. And the protesters seem to have learned an important lesson from the failed uprisings of the Arab Spring: It is not enough to overthrow one dictator only to replace him with another; for real political change, the entire decrepit system of rule and repression must go.
Nowhere has this message resonated more than in Iran. Its clerical rulers have watched in growing alarm as demonstrators throughout the region have challenged the existing order and, in Iraq and Lebanon — where Iran’s allies hold sway — the hegemonic ambitions of Iran itself. When the protests came to Iran last month, the country’s leaders saw them for what they were: the gravest threat to the regime since the Green Movement protests of 2009 also challenged the regime’s legitimacy, only to die out after a sustained crackdown. The internal uprising of today endangers the regime’s control at home, while anti-Iran protests in countries where they have invested vast sums to expand their influence threaten the foundations of its foreign policy. These events strike at the heart of the legitimacy of the revolutionary system. Demonstrations broke out in Tehran and other cities on November 15 in response to the government’s decision to suddenly hike the petrol prices by 50 percent, and eventually engulfed 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces. It did not take long for the protests to assume a strongly anti-regime cast. According to Amnesty International, at least 208 people have been killed since the protests began, many in the span of a few days, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 arrested. More documentation of the authorities’ violent repression has emerged since the Internet blockade was eased starting in November after protests were partially suppressed. This time, Iranians are not buying standard regime efforts to deflect responsibility to the predictable enemies like America, Israel and Saudi Arabia. While the Trump administration‘s sanctions have played a major role in sharp deterioration of the Iranian economy, anti-American slogans have been in short supply on Iranian streets, the regime itself is receiving the blame for country’s troubles. This is why the government responded with historic levels of violence against its own citizens. Tehran’s desperation is showing abroad as well — and the limits of these countries to quell their own populations now that they are inflamed. Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, stormed a protest camp in Beirut in October after it became a target of criticism, but in November Lebanese chanted, ‘From Tehran to Beirut, one revolution that won’t die,’ doubling down on the solidarity between the two peoples and repudiating Hezbollah’s efforts at intimation. In Iraq, Tehran intervened to prevent another political ally, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, from resigning in the face of popular anger; he was forced out anyway.
In this situation, America can do best by doing least. It has taken some helpful steps to boost Iranians’ access to the Internet so they can get their stories out, and rhetorically supported their demands for freedom. But Washington needs to avoid claiming credit for the protests or hint at more substantive support, as President Trump did, which only plays into Tehran’s narrative. Instead, it rallied the European Union and the United Nations, whose responses have been too slow. Washington should also make clear it supports all peaceful protests against unjust governments, not just governments it does not like. In fact, there are some signs the administration may be recalibrating its rhetoric. Iran’s authorities may eventually put down this round of protests, but the regime’s greatest weapon — fear — has lost its power. With the regime’s brittleness now on full display, Iran’s people are unlikely to give up. This is a lesson with broad implications, both in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Western governments need to learn it as well. The protests of 2019 have not earned a catchy nickname like ‘Arab Spring’ with much of the world distracted with domestic problems. But version 2.0 might shake up the existing political and economic order in the region much more completely, and America and its allies should better be ready to cope.
Saira Baig is a freelance writer focusing on politics (in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America), feminism, cinema and fashion.