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Misreading the Protests in Iran


Late last week, major protests erupted in a handful of provincial cities across Iran, and have since spread to Tehran. Predictably, some Western governments, especially the Trump administration, have interpreted these protests as a call for regime change in Iran. But as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi writes at the Verso blog, the real motivations behind the protests are more varied and complex, and cannot be properly understood if viewed exclusively through a Western imperialist lens. Here’s an excerpt:

Commentators and self-styled experts have been quick to jump to hasty conclusions and decree what is driving the present bout of discontent. The giddy enthusiasm of the Trump administration, rightwing DC thinktanks, and many others is palpable. Predictably, the same voices who have consistently demanded Iran’s international isolation, along with the imposition of sanctions, military intervention, and regime change, have rapidly sought to bandwagon the recent expressions of discontent and appropriate them for their own imperial agendas. Such rampant and frankly malevolent opportunism is frustrating to say the least. Within the space of some twenty-four hours, and with only a small number of exceptions, nearly every mainstream Western media outlet has inclined to assimilate legitimate expressions of socioeconomic distress and demands for greater governmental accountability into a question of “regime change.”

Needless to say, these very same individuals and venues have time and again completely ignored the fact that countless strikes and protests from Khuzestan to Tehran, ranging from teachers to retirees, have become a regular occurrence in Iran since President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election. The latter’s administration and those sympathetic toward its agenda have sought on many an occasion to scale down levels of securitization and similarly distinguish between those citizens who express legitimate civic grievances and others who seek the system’s overthrow. These may seem like fine distinctions which fail to assuage the liberal conscience, but they are nevertheless immensely important for the institutionalization of legal and mutually recognized channels of civic contestation. These achievements and many others besides (e.g., indications of relaxed policing of “bad hijab” and the commuting of the death penalty for drug smugglers under two kilograms) are not inconsequential or to be belittled. They harbor implications for the lives of thousands if not millions of Iranians.

Image: A university student protects herself from teargas while protesting at the University of Tehran. Via The Guardian.


There is a tendency throughout western leftists to build their arguments based on what the “west” (like Trump) says. Indeed, it seems this group of commentators believe in the same polarized picture that right-wingers frame, thus they don’t acknowledge the historical agency of the people. Hopefully, at some point, these utopian comrades will leap from their seats and exult: Well burrowed, old mole!
As a matter of fact, the message of these protests (that are happening even in very small towns as well as big cities) is very clear: the Islamic Republic should go, although these protests might not resolve in regime change due to lack of effective self-organised units among the people, but clearly people chant " your time is up conservatives and reformists (= neoliberals)" and at the same time these two parties coordinately condemned these protests by putting protesters in charge of outbreaks of violence in the streets. Regardless what will happen, people have gained a big victory so far; they acknowledge the fact that their demand won’t be realized through this current system.


Although the worries this piece expresses are serious and real, there are many distortions and cherry picking of facts to arrive to the destination the author wants to take us.
There is no real respect to and faith in the political agency of the protesters in the streets of Iran, but just some shallow gesture of pointing to some economic difficulties the people of Iran (‘like everywhere else’) are facing, to splash some ‘red colour’ on the text.

This text is inviting people to go home and wait for a gradual change and reform the government is going to deliver. Or else, stay on the streets and face ’Syria-isation’ of Iran.

There is no mention of the war this government, like its predecessors, has launched on the workers the wretched of the country, whose only crime has been to strike for their unpaid wages and abject poverty. If Ahmadinejad’s presidency was marked with obscurantism and plundering of the country, this government has a clear ideology; they are from top to toe neoliberal, and unapologetically so. Its nepotism and barbaric crashing of unions and every peaceful protests are no different from the previous government. Just as an example, Rohani’s choice of ministers are revealing enough; his minister of Labour and Social Welfare is one of the great minds of the intelligence service, who played a key role in arresting, torturing and executing many, mainly leftist dissidents, in the 80s. Likewise his minster of Justice, and his new minster of Communication, a young man best known for storming people’s home and searching their computers and bookshelves to gather evidences of dissidence for the intelligent service. These are not small mistakes the government has made and that now people are out to demand some amendments of these mistakes, as the author wants us to believe.

The piece shows clearly that the author has no real experience of any ‘peaceful’ or 'unpeaceful’ protest on the streets of Iran (and I doubt if anywhere else). He has completely misunderstood the people’s protests in 2009 known as The Green Movement. He thinks people’s chant of “where is my vote?” means that they had some hope that the regime was reformable and they demanded some changes in the state policy, and not a radical transformation of the state.

This is an ignorant and lazy misreading of the protests. Everyone who has experienced protests on the streets of Iran knows how dangerous it is. The closest I have come to death were when protesting in the streets of Iran (and I have survived a couple of strong earthquakes and car accidents). I, alongside many other protesters, have chanted ‘where is my vote?’ and used Islamic slogans and symbols against the Islamic regime of Iran, only to delegitimise the regime, and despite having no illusion about the election system in Iran and being an atheist. This is a very clever tactic people use to protect themselves as much as possible. They use the very ideology of the system against itself. To disarm them from presenting themselves as the real Muslims and others as ‘infidels’. Only an armchair researcher living outside the country could interpret this as a sign of people’s hope in the system.

And last but not least, this is a cynical ignorance of the power of people, specially women, in bad faith, to attribute the relaxation of policing of “bad hijab” to the will of the government and not the women’s fierce struggle. We, the women of Iran, fought tooth and nails, for decades, to force the government to back. We have gone in and out of the moral police’s vans, been taken to the police offices and spent nights there, tried to create discussions with them when possible or fight against them when discussion was not possible, shouted loudly on the streets, asked the male pedestrians to join us in our fight against the moral police, filmed these barbaric scenes and shared them on social media. The people made this slight (and only slight) lifting of oppression, not the government, as the author chooses to believe.

It is interesting that Verso choses to publish this piece (and e-flux to republish it). The irony is that all the neoliberal media, broadcasted from abroad, are covering the workers protests and the poverty in Iran to subtly pave the way for the foreign intervention. What is repressed in Media like Verso, reappears in The Voice of America’s Persian TV channel!