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Questions Raised by the Iran Protests: What Is to Be Done?

Questions Raised by the Iran Protests: What Is to Be Done?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

An Iran expert observed a few weeks ago: “Sure, the population is unhappy about the economic and social state of affairs, and the consequences of the nuclear deal, which will benefit Iran’s economy, are not perceptible by the middle and working classes. However, important demonstrations should not be expected, as public opinion remembers all too well the failure of the 2009 green movement, and has lost faith in rebellion.” 

This pronostic has obviously been proved wrong since 28 December. It demonstrates how difficult it is to assess the current situation in Iran and warns against hazardous predictions.

No need to dwell on the events we have all been able to follow in the last few days: first, the demonstrations in Mashhad motivated by social grievances and supported, if not encouraged by elements of the clerical establishment, then, the politicization of the protests and their extension to several dozens of towns including Tehran, and finally the escalation of the violence (more than twenty people died and several hundreds of people have been arrested across the country). 

Two elements are particularly striking in what we believe is to be understood about this crisis – and both are somewhat contradictory. First, the bulk of the people currently protesting belong to low classes, the disenfranchised poor people, who used to be a strong component of the regime’s base. They are joined of course by young people, students and others, as is the case everywhere. Second, the anti-regime slogans are increasingly pregnant and sometimes even radical: “Death to the dictator”, “Death to Rouhani”, “We don’t want an Islamic Republic” and also “Leave Syria alone, think about us”.

This has led Stéphane Dudoignon, a French researcher writing in Le Monde on 2 January, to talk about the “ideological and sociological crumbling of the Islamic Republic”, and even of a “pre-revolutionary situation”. 

In their response to these demonstrations, authorities have clearly tried until now to find a balance between repression and their wish to avoid adding fuel to the fire. The regime’s spokespersons make a point of denouncing the manipulation of the United States and its regional allies behind the movement. The Supreme Leader spoke with his usual rigor and denounced the “fitna” attempt orchestrated by foreign powers. President Rouhani had made a solemn appearance on television as of 31 December, to call for unity. He did threaten those guilty of depredation, but he also recognized the citizens’ right to criticize, promising that their claims would be heard. 

How, from then on, can the current movement evolve? No one can say for sure, but three types of developments must be paid close attention to in the following days and weeks (and beyond):

  • First, the power relationship between the protesters and the authorities.

We should keep in mind that the history of Iranian protest movements is an unfortunate one. The regime has a strong capacity for repression, amongst official bodies, the Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Bassiji. It has its own base, even though the counter-demonstrators it brought in the streets so far were mostly public employees who arrived  by bus. The scale of the current protests has not been determined yet but many observers consider they have mobilized far less people than in 2009. Unlike in 2009, the current opposition lacks both a structure and a leader (“green movement” leaders are either staying quiet or are unable to speak out). 

At the same time, other parameters have changed since 2009. The Iranian youth has increased, 38% of the total population is under 25, mobile phones have spread (1 million at the time versus more than 40 million today), the most deprived classes, who lived on subsidies under Ahmadinejad, had kept away from demonstrations in 2009, while they seem to be amongst the first ones involved in today’s protests. In fact, the current movement of demonstrations, and in particular given its fragmentation across the country and its anonymous character, might be harder to suppress. Moreover, as we have seen, it poses a more acute ideological question than the green movement, given the sociology of the protests and the radicalism of its slogans.  

In short, anything can still happen. What will occur on 4 January (one week after the first demonstrations and the equivalent of Saturday for Iranians) and 5 January could be an indicator of where things are headed. The extent to which authorities will apply censorship to  social networks should also make things a bit clearer. One of the current battles is the fight for Telegram, which has apparently played a key role in the uprising, and which is now partially restricted. Of course the deployment of the repressive apparatus, which has only just begun, will be an equally decisive factor. 

  • Secondly, the competition within the regime.

The evaluation grid dividing the Iranian regime between “the hardliners” or “conservatives” and “moderates” or “reformists” is obviously way too simplistic. A whole spectrum of factions forms a continuum between the position of the most faithful to revolutionary origins, and the most pragmatic stance. They interact, form alliances, fight, allocate roles, etc. Their main leaders will clearly have to take position on the evolution of the power balance between the regime and the protests. Mr. Rouhani himself probably tried to embody a “firm but reasonable” line, in order to respond to the opinion’s demands without undermining the system’s foundations. But what will his stance be on an issue like the diversion of resources towards external actions (“leave Syria alone”)? Is this an opportunity for him to in fine become the main beneficiary of the difficulties which no matter what await the regime in the coming months, or will he on the contrary be their ideal victim?

The other main stakeholders of the Iranian system, who have the Supreme Leader’s succession in mind, will also try to position themselves. Some experts did not exclude, before the spark of the crisis, that the regime’s security system, in particular Revolutionary Guards and services, would end up completely taking over the regime, regardless of the religious hierarchy. If the current protests develop, will it rush such an evolution or not? One of the most troubling elements of the current situation is that there is much in common between the lower classes protesters and the members of the security forces. 

  • Finally, reactions from the main foreign capitals 

Therefore, overall, the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to be at stake. The scenario of a revolution can never be excluded, but no matter what happens, the political base of the regime is now much more fragile. The real question regarding Iran’s future is whether the power’s gravity center will rather lean towards reformists or conservatives, and thus a tougher foreign and domestic policy.  What attitude should the foreign partners of Tehran adopt? It seems tempting to answer: “low profile for the United States, the position statement of which can only be harmful” and “involvement of Europe, which can have a considerable influence”. For the moment, Mr. Trump furiously tweets in favor of a regime change, Mrs. Mogherini is hardly audible, if not completely quiet. European governments are starting to choose their position. They do so very cautiously, and by emphasizing the importance of free speech and the right to protest. 

No doubt declarations are important in an attempt to avoid an escalation of internal violence, but in the longer term, what will make a real difference is the implementation of the JCPOA. The White House temptation to withdraw from the agreement and/or to multiply sanctions will be even stronger. President Trump might engage in a dynamic of threats which would play into the hands of those in Tehran who refuse to collaborate with the West. On the contrary, now more than ever, Westerns, or at least Europeans, need to be open to negotiating or interacting with Iran. This could imply:

  • A tougher relationship with Iran’s ballistic program and its actions in the region, as we now have the proof that part of the Iranian opinion disapproves of them
  • Dialogue, because no one will benefit from an increased isolation of Iran And, if possible, in the context of these two first points, the stabilisation of mutually profitable economic exchanges: it is the only way to convince all Iranians that integrating in the global economy remains the best perspective for the future of their country.

President Macron might be the one opening the way for this course of action. In the meantime, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Le Drian, postponed his trip to Tehran previously scheduled for the end of the week. It is undoubtedly wise since it would have presumably become a visit stripped of its content.  In parallel, Mr. Macron’s phone call to Mr. Rouhani helped clarify things between the two countries and opens a window of opportunity for future discussions and cooperation. 

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