This Time, the Iron Fist Wasn't Iran's Only Protest Response
Demonstrators hold signs during a protest in Iran. (Photographer: Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)  

This Time, the Iron Fist Wasn't Iran's Only Protest Response

(Bloomberg) -- Plenty of force was on display as Iran’s authorities stamped out protests over the past two weeks. Something more unexpected emerged as well: a political debate.

The last time Iranians took to the streets en masse, in 2009, the clampdown was swift and absolute. Then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad characterized protesters as “dirt and dust.” This time, too, there have been hundreds of arrests, and at least 25 deaths. But both main factions in Iranian politics claimed to see something legitimate in demonstrators’ demands -- even if they disagree about what it is.

This Time, the Iron Fist Wasn't Iran's Only Protest Response

Analysts see several reasons for the difference. Unrest didn’t spread to Tehran, or draw in the influential middle class, making it less threatening. Leaders learned lessons from the Arab Spring and Syrian war, where heavy-handed intervention backfired. This year’s protests were leaderless, and their demands were so diverse -- from cheaper eggs to regime change -- that there was something for everyone.

Power is more dispersed too. Moderates led by Hassan Rouhani control the presidency and favor social and political opening. Conservatives lambast Rouhani’s government for ignoring the decline in living standards among working-class Iranians -- who played a prominent role in the protests.

‘One Voice’

In 2009, Ahmadinejad and his allies “had pretty much all the levers of power” and “they spoke with one voice,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute.

This time, he said, “it’s a safe bet to assume Rouhani and his people weren’t always following the script” that the office of the Supreme Leader or Revolutionary Guards generals might have put out.

Back then, when demonstrators were dubbed “seditionists,” mention of the unrest got largely confined to banned opposition websites. Now, its causes and consequences are discussed on state-controlled airwaves, in newspapers and on social media.

They “had something to say and stepped onto the streets,” Rouhani said Sunday. “What type of rhetoric is it to call anyone who protests dust, cow or trash?”

Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seen as closer to the hardliners, acknowledged that some had “rightful” grievances.

‘Are They Safe?’

Other public figures joined in. Actress Taraneh Alidoosti took to Twitter after authorities confirmed the death of a 22-year-old protester in prison and said he had committed suicide.

“Sina Ghanbari is gone and we still haven’t understood how such a thing could happen,” Alidousti tweeted to her 178,000 followers. “Where are the others? Are they in good shape? Are they safe?” Asked in 2009, such questions could have gotten her banned from working or arrested.

The changed climate also reflects Rouhani’s battle with rival conservatives, who’ve been blamed for encouraging protests in their initial phase, before violence and anti-regime slogans spread.

“Their goal was to weaken Rouhani or bring him down,” said Saeed Laylaz, an analyst close to the president.

‘What Not to Do’

Unlike Ahmadinejad’s, this government disapproves of the mass arrests, said Laylaz, who was himself detained in 2009. Rouhani, who doesn’t control most of Iran’s security services, spoke out against a ban imposed on messaging app Telegram.

The relative tolerance of one power-center allowed Iranians to vent grievances, Laylaz said. “People hate limitations on their social and cultural freedom,” he said. They’re “using any alley that’s opening.”

Rouhani drew on middle-class backing when he was re-elected in a landslide last year. Many Iranians from that background have seen the chaos and violence that followed anti-regime unrest in Syria and other Arab countries. Leaders have learned a lesson too, Vatanka said.

“The regime, if it doesn’t know what hit it -- and while it’s trying to figure it out -- knows what not to do,” he said. “It saw what happened in 2011 in southern Syria, that if you go in too heavy it might just get out of control.”

Trump Threats

Part of Rouhani’s electoral appeal stemmed from expectations that the 2015 nuclear deal would bring investment and jobs. 

That promise has soured. The U.S. under President Donald Trump has stepped up efforts to isolate Iran -- adding the protest crackdown to its list of reasons.

While Trump stopped short of pulling America from the accord last week, he’s still threatening to do so unless an unlikely consensus on amending it is reached. Multiple U.S. sanctions remain in force; new ones are being added. Fear of breaching them is keeping many companies out of Iran.

Iran’s economy has recovered since the deal -- but not enough to match the expectations or alleviate growing inequality. That’s given Rouhani’s defeated opponents an opening.

‘Faded Color’

On state TV, run by conservatives, footage of Iranians complaining about economic conditions is common. Those broadcasters have their own protest narrative: some of those involved had legitimate demands, though their voices were later drowned out by rioters incited by anti-regime groups in exile.

Political debates aren’t a bad thing, said Foad Izadi, a conservative foreign-policy analyst at the University of Tehran. The unrest of 2009 and 2018 can be seen as “growing pains,” he said, as Iranians learn “how the government is supposed to deal with the people, how the people are supposed to deal with government.”

Other interpretations are less reassuring to leaders of both stripes. In Shargh newspaper, political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam argued that many protesters “not only have lost faith in the conservatives but in the reformers too.” The reason: “the faded color of democracy.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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