5 ways to view the uprisings in Iran

The following are five ways to look at the protests emerging in the Islamic Republic in debates among experts.

Iranian Americans and opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold protests outside of UN headquarters on the day Rouhani addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, US, September 20, 2017. (File Photo) (photo credit: REUTERS/AMR ALFIKY)
Iranian Americans and opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold protests outside of UN headquarters on the day Rouhani addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, US, September 20, 2017. (File Photo)
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMR ALFIKY)
Since the large protests broke out in Iran in late December, analysts have struggled to understand what is motivating them and how to interpret what is happening. Interpretation has also been burdened by the past, including questions about the 2015 nuclear deal, the previous US administration, and previous Iranian protests.
Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)
Here are five ways to look at the protests, emerging in debates among experts. What is clear is that there is no consensus on Iran and that there is tremendous pressure to craft one or two narratives in the media about who is protesting and why.
Is Iran like other countries with protests?
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of the Europe Iran Forum wrote on Saturday that the West should be wary of band-wagoning on this as a “revolution in the making that needs support and solidarity.” He argued that Iran’s protests are comparable to those in Brazil, Mexico and Thailand. Iran is not a special case, he argued, and the protests occurred because of a society that was wealthy enough to support civic institutions.
Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist at CNN, disagrees.
“Anyone who thinks Iran is a normal middle income country, comparing to Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, is blind to the stark reality that Iran is, in fact, extremely different. It uses its funds to fight wars in other countries, imprisons political candidates, tells women what to wear.”
Iran vs Saudi Arabia Iran’s regime has accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the protests. Supreme National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani has claimed that 27% of the hashtags for the protests in Iran were created in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabia vs Iran narrative has dominated some circles of discussion.
Another writer at The National Interest says, “I’m receiving a lot of comments from non-Iranians saying that the protests in Iran are being fomented by US/Israel/Saudi Arabia.” He says the comments come from “professionals from within Western political and economic institutions.”
Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, argues that the protests were instead spontaneous and transcend the concept of “reformists vs hard-liners,” and are unrelated to Saudi Arabia.
Who is driving what?
Carnegie Endowment Senior Fellow Karim Sadjadpour argues that commentators are missing some important points. He wrote on Monday that while in 2009 around 1 million Iranians outside Tehran had smart phones, today 48 million do. He was surprised that protests had emerged in pro-government religious cities such as Qom and Mashhad, “akin to national anti-Trump protests in Kentucky.”
He points to a video by Armin Navabi showing women chanting “You raised your fists and ruined out lives. Now we raise our fists,” a reference to the failures of their parents’ generation and the 1979 revolution.
He says we should pay attention to the “indignities of women living in Iran,” and not just focus on the claims that poverty drives the protests.
Who are the protesters? Gissou Nia, who spent six years documenting the treatment of minorities and marginalized communities in Iran, urges people to ask questions about Tehran-based sources.
“Not everything revolves around Tehran and the middle/ upper class.” She notes that many journalists over the years in Iran have been reluctant to cover groups outside Tehran.
“They didn’t think it related to most Iranians’ concerns. Perhaps, but Iran is the sum of all its parts and the concerns of all these communities,” she tweeted on Monday.
Maziar Bahari, a journalist and filmmaker involved with Iran Wire, writes on Tuesday that 90% of the protesters arrested were born between 1992 and 2004. “All these utterly poor people say that they know someone who’ve been to the protests,” he writes. He says that many of the protesters also reference the 1979 revolution, even quoting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “It is the revolution of the oppressed against the oppression.”
What should outsiders do?
The trend among Iran watchers has been that the West and others should tread carefully in supporting the demonstrations.
The Guardian writes, “Iran’s enemies would be wise not to wish for regime change,” while The New York Times asks, “How can Trump help Iran’s protesters? Be quiet.”
Sadjadpour argues on Twitter in favor of carefully crafted statement of solidarity and mobilizing “allies who have good ties to Iran – EU, Japan, India, S. Korea etc – to deter massive crackdown.”
Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin claims that the US tweeted support for Syrian protesters in 2011, only to then leave “them to be slaughtered.”
Others have drawn comparisons with how the US let down anti-Saddam protesters in 1991 and Iranian protesters in 2009.