As is pretty much always the case, Middle Eastern leaders have once again failed to stop the beginnings of yet another “color” revolution, or at least an attempt to trigger one. This time it is Iran that has found itself staring down the barrel of this geopolitical ploy. This development could easily have been predicted as the wave of “color revolutions” swept across Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria but, at the time, failed to reach Tehran. Iran is the last Middle Eastern player standing in the way of Washington’s and Riyadh’s plans to redraw the regional map, and it seems that the latter two together with Israel are increasingly frustrated with Tehran. Moreover, it was Tehran that finalized the defeat of radical pro-Western militants that tried to take Syria down. Its influence as a result of those victories across the world has grown to extreme proportions, provoking concern from across Arabia’s archaic monarchies regarding the wind of “pseudo-democratic” change they launched back in 2011 finally coming full circle on their own doorsteps.
However, for the sake of objectivity, one should note that Iranian authorities have carelessly missed the moment when rather insignificant social movements can transform into massive political demonstrations hitting all major Iranian cities. One could never have predicted that in virtually no time Tehran would be hit by slogans of “down with the dictatorship” being followed by demands to end Iran’s military intervention in other Arab countries. In many places, demonstrators would chant: “We do not need Gaza and Lebanon, our country is Iran.”
It all started in the second most populous city of the country, Mashhad, with a total population of well over 3 million people. On December 28, a couple thousand protesters would assemble to show their discontent with rising prices, while claiming that those are a direct result of corruption. It was there that for the first time demands were made to remove the supreme ruler of Iran, instead of just urging the sitting civilian president Hassan Rouhani and his government to step down. On the next day, protests reached the capital of Iran, while civil unrest was reported in other cities indicating that the movement was quickly gaining momentum. In Tehran, clashes started near the university campus and then quickly moved to the streets. On December 30, police would use tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. Among the slogans crowds would chat one could hear: “death to the dictator”, with the implication being that those who gathered to express their outrage wanted to see the spiritual leader of the country dead. By the evening of that same day all major centers of Iran were affected by unrest. Clashes with law enforcement agencies became especially violent in Lorestan Province, as there were reports that the police killed six protesters there. By midnight, the number of victims would exceed two-digit numbers. It’s been reported that some protesters had weapons, apparently those smuggled by US intelligence agencies from Iraqi Kurdistan, since it was seen in the Kurdish provinces of Iran and appeared out of nowhere. It must be noted that the population of Iran has no access to firearm due to the strict control authorities exercise over weapons.
At the end of the day police units stopped clashes with demonstrators, while the army refused to open fire on crowds. Therefore, Basij detachments and even units of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were dispatched to suppress the unrest. Nevertheless, the police department in Kerman fell into the hands of protesters. In Tehran, the Basij base was captured by anti-government forces late in the evening. There’s been also reports that the Basij base in Luristan followed the same fate. By midnight, a number of reports would claim that the city hall of Tehran was burning as crowds used Molotov cocktails.
But the most disturbing turn of events was that the locations of Rouhani and Khamenei remained unknown. There were rumors that they left the capital and took refuge at a Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base near Tehran. Moreover, the commander of the elite Al-Quds division General Qasem Soleimani who was commanding military operations near the Euphrates in the south of the Syrian Arab Republic was forced to abandon his headquarters and return to the capital of Iran.
Apparently, the coming days in Iran will decide the fate of the country. The tensions cannot get any higher that this. The whole question is whether the authorities will risk escalating the situation by shooting those who refuse to obey the law. It doesn’t seem that they have any other options at this point as certain cities remain captured by the opposition along with entire districts of Tehran. The leaders of Iran have disappeared from the media space and access to the Internet is practically blocked.
The deciding factor in this face-off is the position of army units regarding these events. There are reports that the Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are gathering their forces before an assault on captured regions and cities, but almost everything depends on the position of high-ranking brass. Should the army remain neutral or, what’s even worse, should it take the side of the protesters, the government will collapse immediately. As of now high-ranking brass remains silent, while distancing themselves from what is happening. Another factor are the local elites and the opposition. For now those forces are taking a watch-and-wait approach, in attempts to figure out which side will prevail. The steps that the above forces will be taking will serve as an indicator of the internal situation in the country.
It is too early to speak about the regional significance of these events, but it is clear that should the government collapse it will dramatically change the whole situation in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It is unlikely that any new government of Iran will continue Iran’s current policy abroad, although those are dictated by Iran’s national interests. Foreign leaders have so far refrained from commenting and reacting to what is happening, as they are apparently awaiting for the development of the situation. Unsurprisingly, the US State Department demanded Iranian authorities respect the civil right of “peaceful assemblies.” As of now, Tehran still has a fair chance to change the situation in its favor. But even then things would remain rather complicated. In regional parts of Iran income levels remain fairly low while foreign wars are seen as extremely unwanted.
It’s pretty clear that the US State Department, the CIA, the Mossad and the Saudi Mukhabarat have all played a part in the recent events in Iran, as those have long been engaged in subversive activities aimed at the opposition and ethnic minorities of the country. This notion is evident amid the dramatic chain of events developing along with the tried and tested scenario Washington has been using to stage revolutions, as protesters were urged to take to the streets through social media networks. For sure, Tehran has had a list of internal problems and certain socioeconomic difficulties, aggravated by the discontent of the Iranian population over high casualties suffered by the military in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In recent months, thousands of coffins have returned to Iran with the bodies of Iranians, especially after the operations in the areas of Deir ez-Zor and Abu Kamal.
There’s also been a lot of tensions between the industrial and agricultural sectors lately. By 1979, it was poor provinces that resisted the US neocolonial rule the most, and the Iranian revolution was aimed at addressing the needs of poor farmers and craftsmen that were living in bitter poverty. This demanded an ideology in which the positions and slogans would be combined against neocolonialism, secular collaboration and nationalism. The Iranian revolution has solved the question of power and ideology, but it has also managed to answer the most crucial question of any revolution – at whose’s expense will the country develop. Naturally, with provinces being so poor all development came at the expense of the urban communities, which were subjected to clerical-communal ethics. But that’s exactly where the contradictions started to multiply. By developing industrial production the government was forced to advance education, science and the Internet. At the same time, it subjected those social groups to a massive amount of ideological pressure. In general, the interests of the country’s development and ideological attitudes have arrived at an insurmountable contradiction, from which it is impossible to escape without conflict. From the point of view of the anti-neocolonial struggle, the Ayatollah regime was progressive, but it has also put a brake on the further national development and the revival of Iran. These contradictions have, in fact, triggered both the “Green Revolution” of 2009, and the current turmoil. What role the US State Department played in all this is irrelevant, as the contradictions objectively exist, and they were created by the Iranian authorities themselves.
The second critical factor that influences what is happening is the strategy chosen by the government. In essence, this strategy is purely leftist, as it can be roughly formulated by the following notion: First we build Shia influence and then we begin development. The government is convinced that it’s not the time for the people to think about well-being, as all resources are to be invested in the quest for regional leadership. It’s all a Trotsky style: first the world revolution, and then communism. It is only logical that such a strategy led to the fact that social support for the government among the rural and urban first-generation population began to crumble. The urban population cannot continue supporting rural areas and the regional aspirations at its own expense. The modern Iranian urban population wants a more open society, an end to ideological pressure, but it’s unlikely that it will be happy to see American tanks entering Tehran. And the American business of plundering is unlikely to be welcome in Iran either.
However, this is a puzzle to the future leaders of Iran who will come to power by replacing the existing clerical regime. It is their task to strike a balance between national revival and national interests. The ayatollahs did not manage to find this balance, thus historically they are doomed. Although this does not mean that tomorrow they will surrender their power to the rebels. Rather, on the contrary – they will try to keep it at any cost.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”