An Iranian's Thoughts on Political Protests in Iran
By MARGARET AVERA | January 29, 2018
Citizens of Iran have taken to the streets to protest dictatorship, corruption, and proxy wars funded by the regime. Some anti-regime chants referenced Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, naming him as dictator and calling for his death. 21 people have been killed as the government has cracked down on the protests, attempting to silence the largest uprising since the 2009 Green Movement.
President Hassan Rouhani stated that citizens have the right to protest and criticize as long as demonstrations remain non-violent. This sentiment was not shared by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, who said that protesters could be charged with the death penalty, citing moharebeh, which means “waging war against God.” Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the protests on enemies of the state, generally referring to the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The Ayatollah claimed that foreign money, weapons, and resources are being used to fuel the protests and undermine the Islamic Republic.
I contacted an Iranian political refugee to gain insight and more direct information on the current status. Shay Khatiri currently lives in the US and has petitioned for political asylum, which is currently under review. He left Iran at age 22, lived in Hungary for two years, then moved to the states. Shay states that he does not wish to ever leave the US. He is a Senior at Arizona State University studying political science and history.
Margaret Avera: What were your initial thoughts after hearing about the protests?
Shay Khatiri: You know small protests about the economy had been happening for a couple of years. Recently, the first smaller one started in the city of Mashhad. I thought it was just small like the others. When I saw it, I emailed AEI scholar Michael Rubin asking, “These protest are happening more frequently, do you think will anything come of it?” I woke up the next day and saw they had grown, and I was astounded. My first thought was that this is the initial phase of a process of regime change. People are having more grievances against the regime, the failure of the regime to fix the economy, and using money from JCPOA (Joint-comprehensive plan of action aka the “Iran deal”) in proxy wars. These protests are finally showing that people are over it.
MA: How do you view the violent crackdown on protests, in light of President Rouhani’s statement that citizens have the right to protest and criticize the government?
SK: So a few points: The crackdown is sad but absolutely expected. As for President Rouhani’s statement, Iran’s system is a centralized government. He appoints governors of provinces and they then appoint governors of metropolitan cities. So Rouhani indirectly oversees the governors of metropolitan cities. The crackdowns are happening under the supervision and orders of his governors, who have been appointed directly or indirectly by the President. You see what he is saying, but his actions say otherwise. It is his government that is suppressing people.
The President also made the point that you should have the right to express yourself, but you do not have the right to destroy property. This is also true in a liberal democracy, but there you do no want to overthrow the whole government of the US or in European countries. In Iran, however, they want to overthrow the whole regime. So it comes down to that automatically, like in every revolution. What President Rouhani misses is that destroying public property is exactly how the Islamic Republic came to power when overthrowing the previous regime. I’d also like to say that the protesters did not initiate the violence, the government started the violence; everything the citizens do is a countermeasure against the regime.
MA: Some outlets report the protests are about economics, while others say it is about toppling the regime. Given your knowledge, what do you think are the motivations for these protests? What are the citizens of Iran calling for?
SK: Iranians are smart enough to understand that these two are mutually inclusive. You cannot have economic prosperity without political freedom, or political freedom without economic prosperity. So they are demanding both. Initially, it was about the economy, but when you hear chants on the ground it’s both. They say “no Gaza no Lebanon, my life only for Iran,” which is both political and economic. We don’t want to give money to Gaza or Lebanon, we want to keep money in Iran. But you also see those people tearing apart the Supreme leader Khamenei’s posters and saying “death to the dictator,” which are political statements. So both elements play equally major roles. You cannot have one without the other.
MA: Do you want to see a reaction from the UN or the US Government? If so, what?
SK: Yes of course, it would be ideal if the UN passed a resolution condemning the regime in Iran and saying it has lost its legitimacy. But that will never happen. Idealistically, I’d like to see what Ambassador Hayley is doing and use the UN as a platform to inform the world about what is happening in Iran. As for the US, the least we can do is be a source of heartwarming: use politicians and political figures to go on networks Iranians watch and saying “we support you and wish you the best of luck.” If President Trump records a video in support of Iranians, that would be fantastic. Funnily, Iranians hated him weeks ago, but now they like him because he tweeted in support of Iran.
There was an NY Times Op-Ed by the Obama administration’s Philip Gordon, who said that the best thing for President Trump to do is be quiet. This is absolutely wrong, his message of encouragement has been received positively in Iran. In 2009 people were chanting to Obama either “with them or with us.” Iranians were asking for Obama’s support of their protests. Obama was being silent in hopes of getting the Iranian deal. They want support, and understand that taking on this regime on their own is practically impossible.
One easy thing to do is, the House last December passed a “Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act,” which requires the US Treasury department to expose the wealth of Iranian leaders. The Senate must immediately pass, the President must sign, and the Treasury must release this information. Iran is a populist regime, the base is the poor and the working class. When you expose that the populist leaders are billionaires, this undermines their legitimacy and their own base would turn against them. Ban or block Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcast (IRIB), the state media, and block their access to satellites so they cannot use the state media to fear-monger and push protesters into their homes, to rally their own supporters. Eventually, the US should airstrike IRGC military sites, making Iran unable to aggress militarily anymore and use the military to suppress protesters. The sites are in the middle of nowhere, so they are not likely for civilian deaths.
MA: The Ayatollah blames these protests on foreign enemies of Iran. What do you think of this claim?
SK: When he says foreign enemies of Iran you must distinguish between Iran and the Islamic Republic. They are not as one, the Republic is not Iran. The domestic enemies of the Republic started it and those are the people of Iran. The Republic makes sure that foreign powers do not have any power or infrastructure to create such a movement. Frankly, I don’t believe that western countries like the US and Israel even have the infrastructure.
Do the math, people are giving out their ATM cards as a warrant to bakeries because they don’t have the cash to buy bread. They give their ATM cards a promise to bring cash when they have money. When you are that desperate it's not the foreign enemy, it's the economy, the desperation, the pressure politically and economically that you have put on your people for 40 years. When a young woman puts her hijab on a stick in downtown Tehran, it's not foreign enemies, it's a young person saying “I want to live my life as I desire.”
MA: How is this different from 2009?
SK: There are a bunch of significant differences. First is that 2009 was a political and freedom movement, over a fraudulent election. In 2017 and 2018, it's not a grievance solely against politics, it’s also economic. It's not like 2009 when only intellectuals and youth were protesting; now the poor and working class are protesting. The core of the regime is abandoning them this time. Secondly, this time they are much faster about going after the regime itself, and they are being much more extreme in going after regime. The furthest they went in 2009 was saying, “death to the dictator"; now they say, “death to the Islamic republic” and “death to the IRGC.” In 2009, the Hardliner party was in power and they were rallying behind the Reformists and against the Hardliners. Now people are rallying against both Hardliners, Reformists, and the regime at large. They have abandoned ideas that Reformists will help them.
In 2009 they had leaders inside Iran, which helped because they were much more organized, but those leaders were elements of the Reformists party, so they wouldn’t go after the regime. The protest died off once leaders were arrested. They cannot do that here because there is no leader to stop through imprisonment. Ultimately, it is much more disorganized. They will need outside leaders, like Khamenei was in 1979, but a good person this time.
In 2009, the core of protest was Tehran. Now it’s the minority provinces going out in the streets the most. Back then there were no pro-Pahlavi chants, you didn’t hear chants in their support. Now they are saying, “king of kings rest in peace,” which references the last king of Iran. The second to last King of Iran they say, “Reza Shah bless your soul.” Reza Shah was known for being cruel towards the clergy, so it's interesting to contrast and express their desire against the clergy. These pro-Reza Shah statements come from Qom, Rashhad, and Isfahan, the most religious cities in Iran. People are using these statements against the clerical regime.
MA: What are some misconceptions that you’d like to address?
SK: A misconception is that anything that we touch in the US would poison it. If we support it that would give the regime a hammer to suppress protesters because they could say these are US agents. Guess what, they are already saying that and they said it in 2009 too. It doesn’t matter if it’s supported or not, the regime will say it’s foreign agents. The biggest misconception in the west is that there is a distinction between Hardliners and Reformists. But the Reformists have shown just as little desire to help the people as the Hardliners have. They have little interest in helping the Iranian people and modifying the regimes behaviors; they just have a nicer mask, that's it.