The New Year’s Uprising in Iran — Don’t Let It Be the One That Got Away

As the new 2018 year has started, and the Iranian protests have concluded their fifth day, whether or not they have started out as an IRGC provocation, as some have speculated, or have been joined by foreign intelligence forces at some point, it is by now abundantly clear that whatever the plans have been initially, have gotten out of hand and are now a significant representation of the popular will. These protests are breaking out all over the country even as the authorities have cut off the Internet, social media, and popular private messaging apps, such as the Telegram. The regime has the weapons, the manpower, the organization, the control of the Internet, and is better positioned overall – and yet they appear to have underestimated the extent of the people’s anger at the misuse of the sanctions relief in favor of foreign engagements, terrorism, and other expeditions which have brought nothing but ruin to the country. Videos and photos activists both in the center of the country and among the minorities in the periphery have shown that it is indeed possible for regular people, unarmed, unprepared, to rise up and initiate contact, by attacking government buildings and vehicles, and even forcing Basiji and other forces to flee or to defect.

Without getting into the conspiracy minefield of speculation over how much CIA and President Trump knew about the protests given the initially limited coverage in the Western media, those who have been generally watching the events closely were not particularly surprised at the turn of events, not by the initial outbreaks, and not by the fact that later, people who had little to do with the original gatherings joined the action. Several indicators of growing discontent bubbling under the surface included years of consistent reports about popular dissatisfaction with the regime, both from the Tehrani activists and minorities from Ahvaz (Al-Ahwaz), Iranian Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and South Azerbaijan.  Iranian human rights journalist Kaveh Taheri analyzed some of the economic reasons for the protests at the very inception; these causes included little known raiding of the pension funds by the IRGC, masquerading as “austerity measures”. In reality, the government was engaging essentially in robbery of its own people to finance its wars. Separately and consistently, the Islamic Republic has been engaged in environmental ruin, exploitation of resources, and vast human rights abuses of minorities. The country likewise suffered from terrible infrastructure issues, that went unaddressed.  All of this has been well known, and predicted by the critics of the nuclear deals, who, despite the fantastical claims that the release from sanctions would make Iran more prosperous, humane, and stable and improve the lives of average people, knew that the monstrous regimes that sent drugs into minority regions to disenfrachise Kurds and Ahwazi Arabs, and to have excuses to execute them in disproportionate numbers, would not put that money to any good use.

This series of protests may have been the most sophisticated, advanced, and out-of-control since the 2009 Green Movement, but it was far from the only sign that anyone in the country not tied to the regime hates it. There were protests breaking out all over the country for years; talks of the destabilization have likewise been consistent. Kurds have clashed with the IRGC; there have been previous days of uprisings in the Kurdish region after a Kurdish woman was raped. The only people who were not aware of these developments were those who chose to ignore it. The series of recent “austerity measures” were merely a drop in the bucket, which followed several other major Iran-related events:

  1. The completion of the land corridor to Syria
  2. The discovery of the Hezbullah drug-smuggling cover up by the Obama administration
  3. And the outpouring of resources in support of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Yemen in the last few months.
  4. Iran’s very public embrace of Hamas and promise to fund its violent terrorist activity – while poor people all around Iran are on the verge of starvation, and are brutally abused by Basiji thugs, largely of Palestinian or Lebanese origin.

None of what we see here is a coincidence. These break-outs are more a spontaneous combustion from the suppressed frustration at the regime’s ongoing iniquity than any sort of organized international conspiracy. There are no charismatic leaders of any significance and prominence that we know of, no specific demands (rather, an opposition to existing policies), no plan, and no platform – just rage, and willingness to risk lives for freedom and in opposition to the ayatoallahs’s and Rouhani’s tyranny. Unlike the lie that the Obama administration has been peddling along with NIAC throughout his entire administration, Rouhani is no moderate, and the idea of independent “soft” factions inside the regime is a fiction, easily recognized by the Iranians themselves. Again, the only people who still believe to this day that there has been any sort of moderation with Rouhani’s ascent, despite the election fraud, rise in the human rights abuses and executions, and greater expenditures on terrorism, either chose to delude themselves at the expense of having their favorite paradigms shattered or cynically continued that narrative because of the inherent need to toe the party line or because they themselves were financially invested in the post-nuclear deal investment entente. The likes of Ben Rhodes spent years beating down any critics of the deal and its aftermath, even dismissing well-supported investigations published in mainstream outlets, like Politico – to this day.

Fortunately, however, this time the protests broke the genie out of the bottle – the international community can no longer ignore (even if, due to financial interest, like in Europe’s case, it remains silent) the extent of the Iranian people’s loathing of the murderous regime. The international opinion can no longer be manipulated by the “human rights organizations” and lobby groups on the regime’s payroll; nor can anyone be legitimately hoodwinked by claims that the ayatollahs can somehow be “reformed”. Iranians want the Islamic Republic gone – whether it is in favor of the Shah or a secular democratic liberal republic, remains to be determined by the Iranians themselves. Nevertheless, it is clear that the regime will not go down easily.  Despite seemingly losing control in this instance, possibly due to being spread too thin with all their international adventures, the regime will hold on as long as possible, for no good fate awaits them at the end. They have specialized for decades in disruptive divide-and-conquer tactics against any opposition, and likewise will exploit these protests the same way – by infiltrating, trying to demoralize the protesters with executions and arrests, identifying the organizers, making communication as difficult as possible, and spreading disinformation which will wreak havoc. They may try to use this time to identify any foreign influences (and agents) and destroy them, which will make future work and funding of movements more difficult. After regrouping, they may even engage in the politics of depopulation of certain regions and basically, creating a situation where different minority groups and opposition is geographically separated and cannot work together. Their jig may be up as far as the pretense of moderation and popular support is concerned – but consolidation of power will likely follow, unless the protesters somehow manage to wrestle the power out of the governments hands, exploiting current vulnerabilities. Still, when there are no real leaders, no organization, and no plan, such coups and revolutions are easier to exploit and manipulate.

If we look back on history, we have seen this pattern before. Islamist forces used Iranian Communists as a vehicle to get to power for years before the events that have become known as Islamic Revolution took place. Cycles of uprisings and purges built up for quite some time before the final even took place, unbeknownst to many, fully coordinated, planned, and organized. The New Year’s events may not be the end, but they will likely build toward the end of the current regime. The only question is: what happens next? In order to prevent an unintended disaster and the repetition of past mistakes, it’s important to do a lot more than offer words of support and sharing of news coverage.

First, the United States should connect (NOW) and work, in the future, with the full range of the opposition, including minorities, not just Tehrani activists. The challenge is that up until this point, these groups have eyed each other with suspicion and had different goals. Likewise, some have been funded by other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and may be inclined to separate into small independent fiefdoms, while others may be content to stay. All these questions, however, should be resolved in a peaceful manner that brings together as many sides with a stake in Iran’s own future as possible.

Second, the Trump administration should take measures to weaken Iran everywhere – pushing back in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, Yemen, even Libya. Anywhere Iran is utilizing terrorism or takeover to expand is influence is fair game. Striking multiple blows simultaneously will keep the ayatollahs panicked and distracted, while the Iranian people can work on building up a viable future in a strategic and controlled way.

Third,  the activists themselves should be creating a communication network that can survive any geographical obstacles.

Fourth, the opposition should be working with the regime to identify allies who can defect. It may be initially more difficult due to the likely crackdown in the immediate aftermath of protests, but with the regime weakened and with viable alternative developed,. many dissatisfied regime members may be all too happy to invest in a more secure future in exchange for full immunity for their cooperation.

Fifth, the foreign powers should provide logistical support, but the future is Iranian. Trying to impose our own version of the future has never worked out well in the past with countries that have a long independent history and that are not likely to abandon their rich culture. Likely, many Iranians are already open towards greater engagement in the West, but their wishes should be respected, and they should not be treated as junior partners in their own country. Where the West can be helpful is with providing resources, training, organizational back up and assistance, and cybercapabilities to assist with effective safe communications for activists while disrupting the regime’s programs at a key moment.

Sixth, in the event that these current protests somehow turn into an unplanned but full-fledged revolution, the US and the coalition of others should be working close with the opposition to ensure that they do not collapse under the weight of initial freedom or are not exploited by the regime saboteurs masterminding the ayatollahs’ return to power. Any new transitional authorities should have backing but only so far as they do not themselves turn to extremism and butchery.

Seventh, high level regime operatives, once the regime falls, should be consistently tried for their crimes. That said, Iran’s police state has been so successful that it has managed to turn into many low level people who have not really benefited greatly from the state corruption into cooperators and informants.  Such people should be shown some leniency in exchange for cooperation and given an opportunity to fully invest in a new model in the aftermath.

Eighth, whether now or later, the opposition should avoid squabbling over minor issues or even major decisionmaking process, and whatever it chooses, it should avoid mutual recriminations over differences in opinion over matters of governance, and try to be as inclusive as possible with the eye towards avoiding destabilization and exploitation of vulnerabilities by the regime leftovers.

Ninth, members of the opposition from different backgrounds and with different points of views, should be given as much opportunity to speak on the record in the Western mainstream media as possible. The United States does not know or understand Iranians, even as we understand that they do not support the regime and want a different future, in which openness to the West is possible. But we need to see their individual faces, hear their voices, in order to be more helpful on the terms that make sense given the context and culture, and the only way that can be done is if CNN & co. stop shilling for Trita Parsi and give voices to the people in Iran and the US who understand the issues, and the culture, and can speak with legitimacy and voice a diversity opinions, rather than spoon feed us propaganda cooked up by non-Iranian groups with agendas of their own.

Finally, Americans, Europeans, Israelis, and everyone else, should strive to connect to members of the opposition to the extent possible, and work on forming individual relations. That will make all the difference in the world. They need to know that we have their back in more ways than just words, not only through our government, but through our institutions and as people. We want to know them, not just what we know about the regime, and we support their strives to make their choices about their future – but we can’t really do that, if we don’t know who they are, what is going on. Enough with the barriers that keep conspiracy theories and suspicion in, enough with the propaganda – time for truth, which can only come out when we face each other as human beings. The change that needs to happen is not just in the change of government and different policy, but in welcome knowledge, understanding, and openness and creating a network that goes beyond just social media and news items.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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