As turmoil in Iran continues, one question is raised in political circles in Tehran: What is really going on?
Although protests are not rarities in Iran, the current uprising has shaken the ruling elite more than any time before in the past 40 years. But why?
Over the past four decades, that is to say since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Tehran, hardly a year has passed without protests by some segments of the population. A list established by researcher Pari Sahabi documents over 800 protests by at least 1,000 people since 1979 and involving numerous social strata from farmers to transport workers, miners, teachers, ethnic groups, women’s right activists, religious dissidents, to people who have lost their savings or fallen victim to economic scams often hatched by pro-regime elements.
The uprising appears not to be as big as the nationwide revolt in the winter of 2017-18 and certainly not as politically motivated as the “Green Movement” almost a decade earlier. The Interior Ministry says the current revolt has affected 110 towns out of the 1,080 localities classified as towns and cities in Iran, that is to say places with a population of 10,000 or more.
So far, the number of people killed in the latest revolts is not established. The authorities initially cited a figure of 30 killed but then backed out and now say they are not allowed to give out any figures even at local level. Amnesty International puts the number of those killed in the first week of the revolt at “over 100”. Reliable sources have the names of 57 killed in 14 towns with reports of a further 80 killed but impossible to confirm. In other words, even with an assumption on the highest number of deaths, the current revolt has not been as deadly as several previous uprisings.
Put at over 1,000 by the authorities, the number of arrests is also lower than the 2017-2018 uprising when over 10,000 were arrested for varying lengths of time.
And, yet, the regime seems to be shaken as never before.
And, for the first time, cracks have appeared in the official narrative. One narrative, promoted by the faction led by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is centered on claim that the whole thing is the result of a sinister “foreign conspiracy” involving the US, the UK, Israel and various Arab countries. Another narrative, presented by the part of the media still controlled by President Hassan Rouhani’s ramshackle faction, mentions “justified grievances” as at least one of the causes of the revolt and tries to separate “genuine protesters” from “ill-intentioned wreckers.”
The ruling elite is also demonstrating its fears with a game of “it wasn’t-me” regarding the decision to triple the price of petrol which triggered the revolt. Rouhani opened the ball by claiming that the decision had been taken by a triumvirate formed by himself, the head of Judiciary Ayatollah Ibrahim Ra’isi and the Speaker, Ali Ardeshir Larjani. However, both men denied this by claiming that they had been merely informed of a decision taken by the presidency and that the principle of Separation of Powers would not allow the judiciary and the legislature to intervene in matters pertaining to the executive authority.
To share the blame, the entourage of all three men also circulated the narrative that the decision had been endorsed by Khamenei. That provoked a reaction from Khamenei’s entourage who claimed that the “Supreme Guide” had not been directly involved in taking the decision. Later, Khamenei himself claimed that he had been merely informed and that, because he was no expert in such matters, he had not objected to the decision.
This was the first time that, in a clear sign of being frightened, the top decision-makers in Tehran were trying to dissociate themselves from an unpopular move.
Because fear has a capacity to multiply, it soon spread to other segments of the regime. Four of the nine ayatollahs that form the regime-approved council of ulema in Qom issued statements denouncing the increase in petrol prices and calling on the government to reconsider. This was the first time that Ayatollahs Safi Golpayegani, Alavi Gorgani, Javadi Amoli and Makarem Shirazi were publicly challenging a major government decision endorsed by the “Supreme Guide.”
The split within the official clergy, estimated to number around 6,000 mullahs at various levels of authority throughout Iran, also became apparent when some Friday prayer leaders in smaller towns, for example Shahryar, near Tehran, and Sirjan in the southeast, joined the protesters and preached against the government decision.
Also causing fear among the rulers in Tehran were reports that in some towns and cities, for example Bushehr, Zanjan and Jahrom, the security forces had joined the protesters or simply allowed them to seize control of government buildings. In Bushehr and Mahshahr, in Khuzestan, government employees went on an unofficial strike to join the protesters.
Fear was also felt in parliament, where at least five members submitted their resignations in claimed sympathy for the protesters. In another symbolic move, some members called for the Speaker to be impeached for his alleged participation in taking the price increase decision without consulting the parliament.
The government contributed to spreading the sense of fear by cancelling all football matches and concerts, cutting off the Internet and forcing foreign “Jihadis” in Tehran for an Islamic Unity Conference to quickly leave the country. A group of Turkish “Jihadis”, led by Muhammad Qara-Mullah, were bussed to the airport as they were en-route for a pilgrimage to Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb near Tehran.
Announcing a ban on all travel to Iraq added to the sense of fear that the regime was shaken by the uprisings in both Iran and the neighboring country.
Confusion reigned within the regime as it searched for excuses to justify the sudden price rise decision.
The first excuse, put by Rouhani, was that the government needed additional financial resources to provide an aid package for 60 million people, some 70 percent of the population, who lived below the poverty line. The additional revenue would enable the government to hand out around $110 a year to 18 million poor families. The subtext was that those opposing the price rise belonged to the “comfortable 30 percent.”
“We know who those 30 percent are,” Rouhani said. “We also know that they have a good life and don’t care about others.”
Some within the regime challenged Rouhani’s claim. At a meeting of the High Council of Islamic Cultural Revolution, Rouhani was taken to ask by Rahim-Pour Azghadi, a theoretician of revolution close to Khamenei, attacked Rouhani for “trying to divide the ummah on the basis of income.” According to reports by those present he claimed that what mattered was not “anyone’s income but his degree of commitment to pure Muhammadan Islam.”
The meeting ended in chaos as Rouhani decided to leave in a fit of anger.
The following day, Rouhani’s spokesman Ali Rabi’i offered a new explanation. The decision to triple fuel prices was taken to meet Iran’s commitments under the Paris Accords on climate change.
“We need to save the planet,” he said. “To do that we have to reduce our current consumption of petrol from 110 liters to under 90 or even less,” he said.
Khamenei who claimed that he had ordered the government to cut petrol consumption to around 65 million liters indirectly endorsed the statement made by Rabi’i.
“We don’t need to waste so much fuel,” the Supreme Guide said.
In another sign of confusion, the Islamic Ministry of Economy warned against “dangers of hyper-inflation” caused by the fuel price increase. With inflation slated to run above 40 percent this year, the rise in fuel prices could complicate the situation.
However, the Central Bank of Iran challenged that claim, saying the price rise would contribute to no more than 3.5 to 4 percent to the inflation rate.
In another sign of confusion, Reza Ardakanian, the Minister of Water and Energy, announced that the decision to increase the price of electricity and water was postponed for another year to prevent inflation from growing further.
The ruling elite appears unable to agree on a diagnostic of the revolt. It simply does not know what threat it is dealing with. The regime’s response has also been contradictory. In some cases, too much force was used unnecessarily. For example in Shahryar, near Tehran, a force of 2000 arrived in a mood of hysteria, provoking clashes that could have easily bene avoided. In other places, Shiraz, for example, where local security shied away from crackdown, Special Forces sent from Tehran arrived too late and had to fight to re-take many government buildings seized by the protesters.
The protests, organized and partly coordinated through social media included a number of innovations. To start with, focus was put on medium and smaller towns. This is because the regime has organized its security policy around the assumption that what matters is Tehran and, perhaps, a few other major cities, and concentrated its estimated 600,000 military and security men and women there. Causing disturbances in over 100, and this time some say more than 300 towns, would make it difficult for the regime to impose and maintain control on a nationwide basis. Worse still, the opposition’s tactic could be aimed at forcing the regime to lighten the defense of Tehran and major provincial centers making them vulnerable to a second wave of popular revolts.
Because Iranian politics has always been Tehran-centered, at least since the 1900s, no regime could survive without full control there. At present the capital city, a metropolis of over 15 million inhabitants, would need a security force of at least 100,000 to prevent its take-over by a well-organized though much smaller opposition force. When the regime enjoyed a popular support base it could count on part of the population to help official security forces in countering opposition groups. Now, however, with the erosion of popular support for the regime, partly caused by increasing economic hardship and massive official corruption across the board, the regime can hardly count on such a scenario.
It took the regime six days after the current revolt had started to try one of its old tactics: organizing “popular marches” in support of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani called on “sons of Revolution” to come out and show their strength.
However, on Wednesday Rouhani was able to praise only three cities Tabriz, Zanjan and Shahr-Kurd for having organized pro-regime marches. Even then, informed sources in Tabriz, a city of around million inhabitants, reported that fewer than 500 people took part in the pro-regime march close to the central bazaar. According to reports that could not independently confirm plans for marches in Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad were cancelled for fear that marchers may simply turn against the regime. The choice of Zanjan for a pro-regime march was interesting because four days earlier the city had witnessed security forces joining the protesters.
While the Interior Ministry and the presidency have echoed claims that the protests were largely spontaneous and lacked a leadership and organization, “Islamic Security,” run by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, claims that the uprising was planned outside Iran and led by a seven-man group identified and arrested in Tehran. It also claims that all members of the “Sabotage Seven” held German, Turkish and Afghan passports.
Khamenei himself, however, identified the “evil Pahlavi family” of the late Shah and the exiled Mujahedin Khalq (People’s Mujahedin) organization as instigators and leaders of the revolt.
However, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, in a message sent five days after the uprising started, insisted that while he endorsed the uprising, he did not claim its leadership. In some places slogans in favor of Reza Shah the Great, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, were chanted, for example in Bushehr and Sari, and in Tehran the slogan “Where are you Reza Pahlavi?” was scribbled on some walls. As for the Mujahedin, the techniques used in marches in some places, for example in Isfahan, had their imprint as known since the 1970s.
Nevertheless, from what we can gather it seems that the uprising had strong and well-informed local leaders almost everywhere but still lacks an overall national leadership.
In other words, there is major wave of popular discontent that could destabilize or even sweep away the present system. However, it still needs someone to ride it.