Just how serious a threat to the Iranian regime are these street protests? They have not abated since the regime finally admitted lying about the shootdown of Ukraine International Flight 752. Time Magazine reports today that the tenacity of the outrage represents a serious threat to the mullahs, although they still take the protests over the death of Qassem Soleimani at face value:
Days earlier, millions of Iranians had gathered in grief and rage after a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3. But the feeling shifted when it seemed Tehran was trying to cover up its role in the crash. We are not citizens. We never were, one of Irans most popular actors, Taraneh Alidoosti, wrote to her nearly 6 million Instagram followers on Jan. 12. We are captives. That night, police reportedly fired live ammunition at protesters in Tehran, injuring several. (The police deny firing the shots.)
The period of national unity that followed Soleimanis death marked a rare moment of reprieve for Irans leadership, which was rocked in November by the largest antiregime demonstrations since the 1979 revolution. Sparked by a domestic gas-price hike amid crippling U.S. sanctions, that unrest prompted a nationwide Internet blackout during which security forces killed more than 300 demonstrators, according to Amnesty International.
As the U.S. sanctions bite, lower-income Iranians in traditionally pro-regime areas have joined protests normally populated by the middle classes and students. But after the crash, critical voices emerged from even less likely quarters. Resigning from the state broadcaster, a journalist asked viewers to forgive her for the 13 years I told you lies. The editor in chief of the right-wing Tasnim news agency also blamed officials who misled the media, tweeting, We are all ashamed before the people. With President Trump warning that the world is watching, Irans next steps will be under the spotlight both at home and abroad.
The question of just how much actual grief over Soleimanis demise is still an open one. Iranian ex-pat Parnaz Foroutan scolded the American media over its mindless embrace of Iranian propaganda in the coverage of the funeral demonstrations. Foroutan argued that the Iranian people knew Soleimani as an enforcer and mass murderer. In fact, the Iranians had seen nearly ten times as many people killed in the streets a few months ago than died in the plane shoot-down:
What has not been widely said is that this revered hero was the same man who oversaw the deaths of at least 1,500 Iranians protesting the regime just this fall, when it blacked out the internet and its security forces opened fire on the millions who took to the streets a response understood to be under Soleimanis orders, given his role in suppressing dissent. I havent heard anyone refer to Soleimanis statement, which I heard broadcast on my Los Angeles radio station only weeks ago, that he was ready to kill millions more of his own countrymen in order to protect the regime.
That citation of casualties is important in the context of this story from Voice of America. The protests have expanded to a second major city, and the message from the students (and others) at the protest specifically references Soleimanis body count:
Students in Iran have protested against their Islamist rulers for a fifth day, with dozens staging a sit-in at a central university as police surrounded other universities in Tehran to block more rallies at those sites.
Photos obtained by VOA appeared to show at least 100 students staging Wednesdays sit-in next to a campus restaurant at Isfahan University of Technology in the central city of Isfahan. The protest seemed to be a silent one, with many of those gathered wearing surgical white masks over their faces with black X marks to symbolize their voices being silenced.
Signs held up by the demonstrators indicated that their grievances were directed toward the Iranian government, which has faced daily protests since its Saturday admission that Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane mistaken for an enemy threat as it departed Tehran for Kyiv Jan. 8.
Several students at the Isfahan sit-in held a sign saying 1,500 + 176, referencing the number of people the U.S. government has accused Iran of killing in a crackdown on nationwide protests last November, plus the number of people killed in the crash of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet.
Suddenly it doesnt seem so incongruous that the Iranians are out in the streets, does it? The death of Soleimani has re-engineered the calculus in Iran, and now the outcome for everyone is much less predictable, including for Trump. Taking out Soleimani was a very large gamble, as I write in my column today at The Week, and not just in the region:
What makes this gamble particularly remarkable is that Trump won over the right-leaning populists in the GOP by explicitly rejecting the interventionist neo-conservatism of the Bush administrations. He ran against the liberal-democracy interventionism of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Trump not only promised to stop starting new wars, especially in the Middle East, he pledged to end the wars in which we found ourselves.
If the Iranians decide to provoke a wider war with Trump, which is still a very significant risk even after the mild pinprick missile retaliation last week, the U.S. as its Great Satan would suffice as a rallying cry. Tehran has insisted its thirst for vengeance has not yet been slaked, although clearly it has other problems at hand at the moment. An outright war in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf would not play to Trumps benefit, even if the Iranians were to explicitly launch it now.
Its also possible that the street protests might convince the Iranians to negotiate a face-saving way out of U.S. sanctions. The European partners to the Iran deal moved on Tuesday to start the dispute resolution process in claiming that Iran had stopped complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated with the Obama administration. That would eventually free the U.K., Germany, and France to apply their own sanctions on Iran and further destabilize the regime. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Trump to lead a new round of negotiations.
This kind of foreign-policy success could succeed in improving Trumps electoral chances in November, especially if such an agreement could pave the way to an end of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this would require dominoes to fall in a very specific pattern, and in a significantly short period of time. Otherwise, Iran and the U.S. are more likely to exchange retaliatory actions, at perhaps a lower level, leading to more worries of extending the American quagmire in the region, especially among Trumps non-interventionist base.
At the moment, the bet seems to be paying off as the Iranians seem more worried about their own survival than Trumps political success. How long that lasts is an open question, and the protesters in the streets might be a canary in that coal mine.