Tehran and other Iranian cities have recently been swept by mass protests reminiscent of the “millioniya” rallies during the so-called Arab Spring. Two such demonstrations have occurred since the beginning of this year. The first was an outpouring of anger and grief in response to the assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander who supervised operations involving Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza. The second was another outpouring of anger and grief triggered by the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane killing all 176 people aboard, most of whom were Iranians. Only days separated the two demonstrations, but they were miles apart in form and substance. In the first, the demonstrators stood in solidarity with their rulers in mourning the loss of and commemorating the national “hero” and “martyr”. In the second, the demonstrators directed their anger inward, against their rulers and the regime that has controlled Iran since the revolution in 1979.
For several days, Iranian authorities denied that the Iranian army or Revolutionary Guard were responsible for the tragic airplane crash. When the truth was revealed, demonstrators vented their outrage at those in power in Tehran, shouting “Salami’s a killer,” referring to the Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Hossein Salami, and “Death to the Dictator,” referring to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The second, anti-government demonstration couldn’t have contrasted more sharply with the mood following the US assassination of Suleimani. But it also contrasted with the protests triggered by the price hikes in fuel that erupted last autumn. This time, the anti-government demonstration included many students and middle-class Iranians.
Does all this speak of a cumulative groundswell shaped by economic straits, political corruption, the consequences of US sanctions and a revolutionary upheaval four decades down the line from the “Islamic” revolution and the imposition of a theocratic totalitarian system of government under the banner of vilayat-e faqih? Or are we looking at a divided groundswell, half made up of Iranians who came out to support of the regime in the first demonstration and the other half made up of the Iranians who took to the streets to protest the regime in the second “millioniya”? The answer is probably more complex than the Persian carpet of Iranian society with its intricate weave of millions of knots.
Political scientists would categorise the two large outpourings as “mass phenomena” though we, of course, can call them uprisings, revolutions or just popular movements. Regardless of the term, we are looking at situations in which hundreds of thousands of people took to the street to call for some form of radical action or change. In the Iranian case this was firstly directed against the US which had assassinated Suleimani, and secondly against a system of government that demonstrators believe lacks legitimacy and against a political and economic condition that is no longer tolerable. The masses, by dint of their sheer numbers, acquire a tangible power that is greater than its component parts; the individual becomes an integral part of a large seemingly indestructible whole, and he/she forms the conviction that this whole can only be right and that this right will ultimately prevail.
The recent uprisings in Iran were not much different to similar phenomena elsewhere in the world: in Hong Kong, Chile, Catalonia and France; in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq last year; and in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, other countries in the Arab world 10 years ago. In all these cases, the movement fed itself. It regenerated its energies with the addition of more numbers and with the ability of a political organisation or group to reshape mass awareness and steer it towards a new image of society and the state.
In terms of outward form, the most salient characteristic of the first Iranian demonstration was black — a particularly Shia colour. At a moment of profound sorrow, mourners formed huge waves of black that surged to such a frenzy of grief that 57 people were killed and dozens of others were wounded in a stampede. The chants, shouts and tears that arose from that crowd expressed a deep pain. But perhaps not all this pain was caused by the loss of Suleimani. Much of it may have had its source in the cumulative grief over a long line of dead stretching back to 1970: the hundreds and thousands who died during the revolution, during the Iran-Iraq war, and in the course of the many subsequent wars in which Iranian youth marched off to serve in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The second Iranian demonstration this year featured familiar scenes from other Middle Eastern uprisings involving middle class youth. In addition to black, we saw variegated colours of clothes and hair, including strands of women’s hair escaping from slack head coverings. In contrast to the sombre solemnity of the first occasion, in the second demonstrators seemed more at ease. They smiled and their eyes gleamed with hope. This may have been due to the youth factor or to the growing belief that the time for change has come.
Have Iranians changed in just a few days? Had the government’s lies and evasiveness surrounding the airplane accident triggered a radical shift in Iranian public opinion? It will be some time before we can answer such questions. The repercussions from the recent US-Iranian facedown are still in their early stages. As is the case in all such crises that reach the brink of war, this one left effects that will continue to simmer and ferment on each side.
In the US, the results of that fermentation process will be felt in the electoral campaigns from now till November. Already, developments in the Gulf before and after the assassination of Suleimani have affected the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate and, to some extent, the Democratic Party primaries which will kick off in Iowa in a few days. Some of these developments are unfolding in Iraq where Baghdad had approached the threshold of asking US troops to leave the country, but then withdrew the request when Washington demanded too high a price. But the question of the US military presence in Iraq isn’t over yet. It is still caught between the Iraqi grassroots uprising, the formation of a new cabinet and the reordering of relations between Baghdad and Tehran because the former feels overly strained by the alliance while the latter fears that the assassination of Suleimani and Iraq’s Al-Mohandes was a sign that the time had come to part ways now that Iraq had become an arena for escalation.
In Iran, the aftermath of the showdown has produced two opposing outputs: “Death to the US and Israel” and “Down with the Supreme Leader”. But there was more than just chants. There were Iranian missile strikes that caused no deaths and there was an escalation in Iranian uranium enrichment in order to bring the “nuclear” crisis back to centre stage. The European reaction was split: a European call for the members of the P5+1 group to return to the negotiating table with Iran in the hope of reaching an agreement satisfactory to all, versus a post-Brexit Britain under the leadership of Boris Johnson who is franker than his predecessors, leaving Iran with little choice but to make a deal with Trump.
What all this boils down to is a state of intense fluidity aggravated by the diversity in positions of a host of international and regional powers. Such is the reality in the wake of a major crisis fraught with tensions that remain highly volatile.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.