For many Americans, Iran is part of the modern “axis of evil.” It’s a country that, along with North Korea, is dubbed a bastion of terror and corruption.
We hear about Iran daily in the news. Nuclear ambitions, the ayatollah, the Revolutionary Guard in Syria and Iraq, terror, meddling in Lebanon, the rising Shia Crescent. But most of us don’t know much about these buzz phrases beyond what sensationalist headlines portend. While I am no defender of Iran (we speak as though the reality of “Iran,” or any other country, is monolithic), I believe it is one of the most misunderstood and vilified countries in the West today. Much of that dehumanization and mischaracterization is based in ideology and narrative, not reality.
The latest buzzword to come out of Iran is one we’re familiar with from 2009: protest. Protests erupted at the end of 2017 and quickly spread, especially to the country’s more rural areas. Hundreds have been arrest and some have been killed; social media has been throttled; and the regime, embattled within itself between hyper-conservative and more moderate forces, is flexing.
We’ve seen mass protests in Iran before. But this isn’t like 2009. Is it a Persian Spring? Is it a conspiracy? It is something more?
With all of the historical and cultural baggage attached to the stereotypical American view of Iran, what are we to make of the current protests? For that, here is a concise, helpful guide to understand what is going on, where it may be going, and what the United States has to do with it.
What Is Going on in Iran?
A Second Revolution in Iran? Not yet. — Washington Post, 30 December 2017
“Is it a revolution? Not yet. Iran’s government is its own worst enemy and the Iranian people know it. Economic woes leading to infighting can bring down this corrupt and brutal system. Different factions within the government will, most probably, and just the same as always, choose to dismiss the genuine economic grievances of the Iranian people and blame the protests on foreign agents and an international imperialist-Zionist conspiracy.”
Iranians Chant “Death to Dictator” in Biggest Unrest Since Crushing of Protests in 2009 — The Guardian, 31 December 2017
“‘Everyone is fed up with the situation, from the young to the old,’ said Ali, who lives near the city of Rasht, where there were large protests on Friday. He asked not to be identified. ‘Every year thousands of students graduate, but there are no jobs for them. Fathers are also exhausted because they don’t earn enough to provide for their family.'”
Five Things to Know About the Iranian Protests — The Wall Street Journal, 1 January 2018
“Iranians have a knack for political slogans that rhyme in Persian as if they were verses of poetry. Here are some slogans being chanted at the protests, translated into English: ‘We don’t want an Islamic Republic, we don’t want it, we don’t want it.’ ‘They are using Islam as an excuse to drive people crazy.’ ‘Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic.’ ‘Reformists, hard-liners, Game is over.'”
Where Does the United States Fit In?
How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet. — The New York Times, 30 December 2017
“Even if Mr. Obama’s support might have somehow been helpful to the Iranian opposition, Mr. Trump’s almost certainly will not be. Whatever Iranians think of their own government, they are unlikely to want as a voice for their grievances an American president who has relentlessly opposed economic relief for their country and banned them from traveling to the United States.”
Protests in Iran Are No Reason to Kill the Nuclear Deal — The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 4 January 2018
“To give substance to the US administration’s claims that it supports the Iranian people, it should do more than waive the nuclear-related sanctions. It should lift other restrictions that unfairly penalise ordinary Iranians, beginning with the travel ban on visitors from Iran. Among the eight countries targeted by the ban, Iran is the most affected because it has the largest and most internationally oriented population, and has no official channels through which to address the conditions that would allow for the relaxing of the ban. As long as the ban remains in place, Iranians know that platitudes of support from the administration are empty hypocrisy.”
Will Iran’s Protests Help the Hard-Liners — The New York Times, 8 January 2018
“There are several steps Mr. Trump can take if he truly wants to help the Iranian people change their country: He can hold Iran accountable for human rights violations. More important, he can keep the nuclear deal in place and avoid reimposing sanctions. Walking away from the deal would be a gift to Iranian conservatives, who could use it to foment the kind of nationalism against an outside enemy that has been crucial to their existence. Finally, the United States can provide satellite internet access to Iran so that activists can inform people and communicate when the regime shuts down domestic internet access.”
Other Factors and Perspectives to Be Aware Of
Don’t Oversimplify the Protests in Iran — NPR, 3 January 2018
“The regime and its apologists still point to possible Saudi, Israeli or American roles in fueling the political fires spreading in Iran. Much of the protest ignited in small towns that were known as bastions of faith, places that lack any big-city anonymity and where no one can escape the watchful eye of ‘Big Brother.’ Surely foreign meddling might exist, but unless there is something rotten in the state of the economy and politics of a country, no “outside agitator” can wreak the kind of havoc we now see in Iran. Prudent policy and sober thinking on Iran today has to take these discordant realities into account.”
Why Can’t the American Media Cover the Protests in Iran? — Tablet Magazine, 30 December 2017
“Selling the protesters short is a mistake. For 38 years Iranian crowds have been gathered by regime minders to chant “Death to America, Death to Israel.” When their chant spontaneously changes to “Down with Hezbollah” and “Death to the Dictator” as it has now, something big is happening. The protests are fundamentally political in nature, even when the slogans are about bread.”
The Guards’ Conspiracy Theory About the Protests — IranWire, 5 January 2018
“The IRGC has thus come up with its own theory about the protests: it’s the work of three foreign countries with a hostile attitude toward Iran. It’s a theory that has been readily accepted by the Iranian judiciary, with possibly dire consequences for more than 1,500 citizens—the rough number that have been arrested so far during the protests.”