Now the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal, the world is yet again bracing for an all-out confrontation between Washington and Tehran. But while Donald Trump’s decision inevitably has serious implications for the security balance of the Middle East, it will also hit Iranian society hard – and in particular, it will hurt Iranians protesting against their government.
More than any other time in the last four decades, Iran is seeing an uptick in protests over all manner of issues as its dominant political tendencies clash out in the open.
Since the 1997 presidential election, Iran’s political scene has been dominated by three main tendencies. At one extreme are totalitarians backing the religious-political establishment; at the other are homegrown advocates of regime change. And in the middle are the so-called reformists, who have advocated for change while steering clear of challenging the regime per se. For the last two decades, reformists have managed to all but monopolise mainstream anti-government struggles while marginalising the advocates of regime change, whom it labelled as destructive and delusional.
The reformists hit their peak with the disputed 2009 election and the massive protests that followed it, during which they successfully rallied much of the opposition to their cause. In spite of public uproar at the fraudulent election, the reformists easily smeared more radical protesters whom they couldn’t co-opt as warmongers, traitors and fanatics.
While the protests failed to transform Iranian politics, they still looked like something of a moral victory for the reformists. But as it turned out, 2009 was the point at which reformism began to turn away from democratic liberalism and towards an ultra-nationalist, anti-Western, and semi-fascist populism. In other words, it was the point where reformism began to be absorbed into the ruling discourse of totalitarianism. And as the next election in 2013 proved, even as the reformists have taken the reins of power, their once-bold agenda has begun to fade.
First elected president in 2013 and then re-elected in 2017, reformist Hassan Rouhani has totally failed to deliver on any of his major campaign promises. Most gallingly, the economic boom he promised would follow the nuclear deal never came to pass.
Even as post-deal sanctions relief released billions of dollars to the government, Iranians became poorer, workers and government employees went unpaid, and the currency lost value. The Iranian public has long known that public money has a habit of ending up in the elite’s pockets, but today, the government doesn’t even bother denying it.
Besides corruption, Iranians are furious that public money is going to fund foreign wars. In a public speech in July 2017, Rouhani admitted that “despite our most difficult economic situation, we have provided Iraq and Syria with all the weapons and other supplies they need”. A day later, the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development released a report showing that 33% of the population were living in extreme poverty. And at around the same time, a video went viral showing a Hezbollah leader explaining that “Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As long as Iran has money, we have money”.
These policies drastically eroded the regime’s popular support – and unsurprisingly, the ensuing protests are of a size and potency not seen since the 1979 revolution. The discourse of regime change has resurged, with protesters taking to the streets and chanting “we will take our Iran back”. In response, the reformists’ rhetoric turned harsh, with ominous warnings about Iran “becoming the next Syria”. But it didn’t work, and as they lost many of their supporters, the reformists joined with some of Iran’s most extreme factions to call for a crackdown on the protests. This puts them on the side of forces they have fought against for decades.
A gift from Washington
All this has been exacerbated by the American withdrawal from the deal, which has sharpened the regime’s old propaganda tools just when it needs them the most. Until Trump announced his decision, the government’s years of scaremongering about a possible US invasion had backfired, met with popular slogans such as “They say the US is the enemy, but our enemy is right here”. But now, Trump has provided this politically bankrupt elite with a foreign scapegoat for its every domestic failure.
The US’s unilateral withdrawal is also a boost to Iran’s image abroad, allowing the regime to take up its favourite pose as the victim of a tyrant, ensuring that many outsiders who understand little about Iran’s domestic politics will come to regard one of the world’s most outlaw regimes as a reliable supporter of international law.
The Iranian government has exploited this misperception before. Many Western leftists and liberals are so disgusted by the US government and Western “imperialism” that they end up supporting and admiring brutal dictatorships and regional imperialists whom the US considers beyond the pale. At home and abroad, the Iran government’s cultural, political and academic advocates smear dissenters as proxy agents of a US-led Western regime change project.
This all leaves the Iranian opposition with precious few allies abroad. In their efforts to keep the deal alive, the US’s erstwhile partners will have to compromise with Tehran – and high up the list of likely concessions is for the EU countries in particular to overlook the government’s human rights violations even more than they already do.
All the while, the hostile relationship between Iran and the US looks more and more warlike. A similar situation arose in the hotheaded 1980s; it led to the bloody suppression of Iranian dissidents, and saw full-on theocracy take root. Now as then the mere spectre of war will help the Tehran government keep much of Iran’s civil society in line, and it sets the stage for a brutal crackdown on any opposition.
So far, many Iranians angry with the regime seem undeterred. In the days after Trump withdrew from the deal, teachers protested in seven cities for free education and an end to discrimination. But while Iran is now hearing some of the loudest calls for regime change since 1979, recent events will surely muffle them. And so long as the rest of the world’s views on Iran are so intensely polarised, Iran’s activists will struggle to make themselves heard.