Iran’s regime trying to manage protests it can’t contain -analysis

If Iran suppresses the demonstrations more it could create a chain reaction in which the protests get worse.

 A man gestures during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022.  (photo credit: WANA VIA REUTERS)
A man gestures during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022.
(photo credit: WANA VIA REUTERS)

Facing weeks of unprecedented protests, Iran’s regime is now in a bind.

If it suppresses the demonstrations more, it could create a chain reaction in which the protests get worse because the people’s anger grows.

On the other hand, if the regime appears weak and doesn’t do anything, the protests may create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to feel free from the regime’s grasp and topple it.

Iran’s regime, though, is smart and sophisticated. It has survived for decades ruling over a country where many people despise it.

Opposition comes from many minority groups and regions and from those who prefer Iran to be a modern state rather than a theocratic one run by men who kill women for not covering their hair.

“Violence that overtook the people's protests should not make them ignore the protests and forget the discussion about them."

Hujattul Islam Hajj Sheikh Ali Saeedi

Unprecedented interview in Iran

A recent article in Tasnim News, a network affiliated with the IRGC, illustrates the problem Iran’s regime faces. The article included an interview with Hujattul Islam Hajj Sheikh Ali Saeedi.

Ali Saeedi was appointed in 2018 as head of the Ideological-Political Bureau at the office of the Commander-in-Chief of Iran’s Armed Forces.

He was scooped for an interview because many people protesting in Iran today “neither knew who Mahsa Amini was nor what the issue was,” he told Tasnim. The point they made was that there is widespread anger in the Islamic Republic, and that some protests are legitimate, but many are being exploited.

The article uses some conciliatory language, referring to “bitter and unfortunate events.” It also expresses sympathy for peaceful protests. But it says “violence that overtook the people’s protests should not make them ignore the protests and forget the discussion about them. A pathological and reformist look at the processes and seeing the generation that is growing in the context of virtual space is one of the necessities of governance.”

This word salad of a sentence is a way for the regime to say that they are concerned the younger generation is getting away from them – most of the protesters today are students and teens.

Ali Saeedi draws a comparison between protests in Iran and larger issues.

“If an accident occurs, if a person or persons are guilty and negligence has occurred, they should take responsibility for their mistake and say that we are ready to accept any punishment,” he said.

“In some countries, we see that a minister resigns because of an incident that happened to his subordinate. This culture should flow in our administrative and government system, so that if there is a fault in a system, the officials of that system will take responsibility for that fault. People will be convinced when they see the honesty of the officials.”

This sounds like he is blaming someone in the government for the death of Amini. “What to do here? First of all, the speed of informing and mastering is also very important here. In the case of Mrs. Mahsa Amini’s death, which was a bitter incident and hurt public opinion, such a thing should have been done quickly.”

Ali Saeedi argued that even if no single individual can be called responsible for her death, there should be some public taking of responsibility, including resignations.

This is a sign that many members of the regime think this was not handled well. They are sensitive to the murder of a young woman and especially a woman from the Kurdish minority, because they know that people take this seriously and they cannot pretend she was a dissident or “terrorist.”

Even Tasnim’s official line on this, in the introduction to the article, notes that “everything started from a tragic event, with the death of a young woman... Many people were upset and everyone reacted in a different way to this incident.”

Could dissent become more acceptable in Iran?

The article is saying that people have an essential right to protest, but that riots and violence are not acceptable. This is conciliatory language from the very top.

In the interview, there are more nuggets of interest for those who wonder whether cracks are openly appearing in the regime.

A history of regime mistakes

Ali Saeedi then compared the event to other regime mistakes, saying it would have been better for the medical examiners to announce the results of the investigation into Amini’s death earlier than they did.

“People are waiting for the medical examiner to announce his opinion.” This is a clear questioning of the official narrative.

The conversation then turned to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020.

He said the government made mistakes; it said “first one thing... and then something else.”

Contradictory and incorrect news and narratives were published, he said, comparing it to “fake news.”

He then discussed the downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020, when the IRGC shot down a civilian plane.

“The same happened with the Ukrainian plane crash. It is necessary to form a committee or council with a combination of radio and television and other members under the supervision of the Supreme National Security Council so that we do not witness the emergence of false and flawed narratives. The news should also be conveyed to the people quickly and urgently.”

IN THE BEGINNING of Iran’s “revolutionary” era, he continued saying – the period of 1979 – “figures from different and even opposing intellectual and political groups appeared, spoke their words and criticized each other. Those debates were very good. People were also persistent. One of the solutions can be the revival of these debates and conversations.”

He proposed a real change in Iran in which protests are protected and people can speak more freely.

“It is necessary to give value and opportunity to trade unions and any groups and institutions that are similar to these so that they can do these things and finally prevent protests from turning into convulsions and conflicts.”

The danger of protests for the regime

Ali Saeedi warned that protests can be hijacked and turn violent.

“People have come to the street for water and say they want water, but suddenly some people jump on these protests and riot.”

He encouraged officials to protect the right to protest and to gather.

“Maybe this will take time, but by amending the laws and creating a culture among the officials and the people, we can witness gatherings and protests in the future where the people will convey their words to the officials directly and clearly and in complete security, demand and follow up.”

In this unprecedented interview, the media and Ali Saeedi are suggesting a real reform in Iran for protests. This marks a major shift in how most authoritarian regimes deal with demands from the people.

In other regimes such as Turkey, Russia and China, no articles like this one appear in which officials argue in favor of the protests.

Iran’s regime is trying to be flexible because it understands that it faces a crossroads today. If it crushes the protests with mass killings, as it did in 2019 and other instances, it will lose a generation. If it listens, it might get to survive another decade or so. The regime knows that it is facing a real test.

It also knows that the Iran deal which it was able to get in 2015 may not be on the table and that its allies in Moscow and Beijing may not be able to come to its aid because they face hurdles of their own at home. Iran’s regime understands today that it doesn’t have the wind in its sails it had back in 2009-2015 when a new US administration was working to secure the deal and Tehran was on the winning side – today it faces real hurdles at home.