The Islamic Republic of Iran is probably even stronger than it was prior to December 28th, 2017. On that date, the international media announced that protests were taking place across Iran. The White House, the US State Department, and the American media all swung into action, celebrating the protests and demonizing the Iranian government. It was all over within a few days, and despite an emergency UN Security Council meeting, it was pretty clear that no “Iranian Spring” was in the works. Unlike the “revolutions” in Libya and Syria, Washington’s efforts to foment unrest were unable to shake the country.
Seizing A Moment To Create Unrest
In reality, the initial protests which sparked the instability were convened by supporters of the government. The issue raised by crowds on the streets of Mashhad was bank defrauding of the public. The protests expanded into a general display of outrage at cuts in social programs and financial de-regulation.
President Rouhani is associated with Iran’s Reformist Movement. The current Iranian President is more socially liberal than many of his colleagues and favors a more free market approach to the economy. He has made the P5+1 negotiations, the JCPOA, and the hope that lifting sanctions will strengthen the Iranian economy, a central plank of his political identity. Many of the young people who had protested in 2009, celebrated when Rouhani first took office in 2013.
Rouhani has positioned himself as a voice of “change” and toning down the country’s Islamic revolutionary ideology. Many of the figures in Iranian politics who call themselves “principalists” (labelled “hardliners” by their detractors) consider Rouhani to be a “moderate” and argue that his policies have undermined the Islamic Revolution. The initial protesters saw Rouhani are sellout and moderate. Those who protested in Mashhad were not calling for the Islamic Republic to toppled, but rather for its principles of “Not Capitalism But Islam” and “War of Poverty Against Wealth” to be reinforced.
However, with reports of unrest breaking out, all the “usual suspects” who dislike the Iranian government and are promoted and supported by the United States, immediately swung into action. The wealthy “westernized youth” of northern Tehran, who frequent underground dance parties and have a delusional perception of the United States, were out in the streets near Tehran University, breaking windows and burning cars. Elsewhere, crowds of Iranians calling for the return of the autocratic pre-1979 monarchy, chanted “Reza Shah! Reza Shah!” The terrorist organization known as the Mujahadeen E-Khalq (MEK), a violent sect that worked with Saddam Hussein and calls itself “Islamo-Marxists” sent its supporters out as well, to unfurl banners of their leader in exile, Maryam Rajavi, and escalate the level of bloodshed.
A Strategic Response from the Islamic Republic
The initial protests were suddenly forgotten, as a Washington’s bizarre coalition of anti-government forces based in wealthy neighborhoods stole the spotlight. The isolated anti-government minority had very little support among the population at large as it was screaming out racism, calls for an autocratic monarchy, and the extremist rhetoric of MEK. The protesters became more violent, burning police stations and escalating calls for support from the USA, as it became clear that the population would not join their attempted putsch.
Following the standard “color revolution” playbook, the US media presented the protesters are “human rights activists,” ignoring their actual grievances and stated goals. As the protests faded, the US media continued to make them its central focus.
The response of the Islamic Republic to the protests demonstrated a level of strategic brilliance in the age of social media. Rouhani declared:
People are absolutely free to criticize the government and protest but their protests should be in such a way as to improve the situation in the country and their life…. Criticism is different from violence and damaging public properties…. Resolving the problems is not easy and would take time. The government and people should help each other to resolve the issues…
The words of Rouhani reassured those in his Reformist camp that their concerns were being addressed, and they did not need to become desperate and join with the violence of US-supported anti-government extremists. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards and the Principalist movement swiftly organized huge, peaceful, and disciplined rallies of their own, supporting the Islamic Republic, and emphasizing its anti-capitalist goals. Not surprisingly, images of these pro-government rallies were used in western media, misrepresented as anti-government protests.
Trump Panders to Pahlavist Racism
Tweeting in response to the protests, Trump accused the Islamic Republic of “squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad.” He echoed earlier rhetoric from his UN speech: “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth where their people can be happy and prosperous once again? The Iranian regime’s support for terror is in stark contrast to the recent commitments of many of its neighbors to fight terrorism and halt its financing.”
This rhetoric is clearly aimed at nationalists and supporters of Iran’s deposed monarchy. The common grievance of this constituency among wealthy Iranians is that the Islamic Republic is wasting its resources by supporting people they deem to be racially inferior, both inside and outside of Iran’s borders. The Islamic Republic’s constitution forbids racism, but the belief that Persians are ethnically superior to Arabs, Kurds, Africans, and others was a central tenant of Pahlavi ideology. These racist and supremacist beliefs remain popular among wealthy people in country’s private sector.
However, even serious Iranian Nationalists don’t really buy Trump’s argument. What Trump characterizes as “support for terrorism” and “squandering the nation’s wealth” is really Iran’s efforts to stabilize the region. In Iraq, Iran supports Shia forces that are fighting ISIS and trying to hold the country together. In Syria, Iran supports the secular Syrian government in fighting a wave Al-Queda linked extremists. Hezbollah has also played a key role in helping to drive ISIS out of Syria. Iran’s role in the region is not defined by some fanatical desire to spread terrorism, but rather by an effort to secure itself and keep the region from becoming even more chaotic.
Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, seem to have a different agenda in the Middle East, and have been working to support uprisings and “regime change” against governments they dislike. The result has been the strengthening of terrorism and a mass refugee crisis.
Iran already faces a large amount of terrorism and drug smuggling on its Afghan border, and Iran’s military support for forces in Syria and Iraq makes rational sense to anyone in the country who wants a better life, regardless of their ideology. Even the staunchest Iranian nationalist, who may be loaded with deep contempt for the Arab people, can understand that if Syria or Iraq become the site of greater bloodshed, Iranians will be far less safe. Trump’s argument simply doesn’t hold up.
The Failure of a Confused Deep State
The reality is that unlike Barack Obama, who many Iranians admired for his perceived intellect and familiarity with Islam, Donald Trump is widely hated in Iran. As a wealthy CEO known for his use of obscenities and obsession with money, Trump is almost a caricature of what Khomeni established the Islamic Republic to oppose. On the recent annual “Day to Oppose the Global Arrogance of the United States” the people of Iran rallied against Trump, and made friendly appeals to the American people. Slogans included “Down with US regime, long live US people.”
Donald Trump’s loud support for the Iranian protesters did not ultimately help them. If anything, it discredited them to the Iranian public, along with the statements of another hated figure, Benjamin Netanyahu. Rouhani rebuked Trump’s support for the protesters, saying: “This man in America who is sympathizing today with our people has forgotten that he called the Iranian nation terrorists a few months ago. This man who is against the Iranian nation to his core has no right to sympathize with Iranians.”
Many in the CIA and other US intelligence agencies, who have mastered the craft of trying to wage “soft power” covert operations to serve US hegemony, were most likely urging Trump to tone down his support for the protesters. It appears that Trump wasn’t really trying to help the Iranian protesters with his words, but was pandering to a specific constituency among his supporters, namely figures like Sheldon Adelson, and other allies of the Israeli Likud Party. Trump may very well have known he wasn’t doing the Iranian protesters any favors by cheering them on, but he continued to cheer them on loudly, for his own domestic political reasons.
Recent maneuvers from the White House, such as recognition of Jerusalem, indicate almost a desperation to prove Trump’s loyalty to Israel. As Trump is constantly called “fascist” and accused of being anti-Semitic or Hitleresque, held in absolute contempt by CNN and most mainstream American TV networks, his efforts to hold on to key allies like the Likud Party and the Christian Zionists have increased. Trump’s excessive rhetoric against Iran isn’t exactly strategic, but it is what a key group among his supporters really likes to hear.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the protests in Iran. Haley utilized the meeting to make a lengthy speech denouncing the Iranian government. It seemed rather apparent that behind her words was an attempt to win the approval of Iran’s enemies, specifically those in Tel Aviv. Voices throughout the chamber criticized the meeting, and even usual US allies like France chimed in to subtly denounce US meddling in Iran’s affairs.
As the crisis ended, a false news story began to circulate throughout US media. Reports that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been arrested for inciting protests circulated throughout western media. This story was confirmed to be completely false, first by Ahmadinejad’s lawyers, then by his sons. A few days after the protests ended, Ahmadinejad held a public event with Kurdish activists. Yet, no retraction was ever published and long after the story was disproven, it continued circulate across the internet.
No Repeat of 2009
While many forces behind the scenes in the US government are looking to roll back the rising power of Russia, China, Iran and other independent countries, the Trump administration seems to be constantly pandering to specific minority factions among the rich and powerful in the United States. These groups have specific short terms interests, and unlike the banking elite and the intelligence community, are not thinking about long term strategy or geopolitics.
With Obama as President, the unrest following Iran’s 2009 election was prolonged and had the potential to do a great deal of damage to the country’s political order. Obama was strategic in his words, as the international media and the US deep state worked to promote the anti-government forces and manipulate frustrated sections of the Iranian population. At the time, forces in the USA that are now aligned with the current administration denounced Obama for not being louder in support of Iranian protesters back in 2009, saying he “spat in their face.”
In the first weeks of 2018, with a new administration, the White House operated in a quite different manner than in 2009, and the results were far different. While Trump and Haley roared in support of the protesters, the efforts of US backed, anti-government forces in Iran completely flopped. Stability was restored in a matter of days, with the Revolutionary Guards crushing the isolated, violent oppositionists amid massive pro-government counter demonstrations.
It is very likely that the Principalist Faction, the so-called “hardliners” often demonized in US media, will become the ultimate victors as the unrest originated in response to Rouhani’s market oriented policies. The incident ultimately illustrates that Rouhani’s JCPOA has not made the USA any less determined to overturn the revolution, a point the Principalists have long been raising.
In the first month of the 2018, it is pretty clear that the high level of disunity and conflicting interests in Washington DC resulted in an epic geopolitical failure for the United States. Botched efforts to destabilize the country have ultimately strengthened the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.