Iran has experienced anti-regime protests before. Iranians turned out in the streets in 2009 following the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and they rebelled against rising food prices in the winter of 2017-2018. In both instances, the protests were violently disrupted, and the anti-government sentiments that fueled them eventually dissipated. But the demonstrations that have erupted in Iran in recent days have a distinct quality that suggests this time is different, and not just because they coincide with a region-wide revolt against the mullahs.
The speed with which events unfolded in Iran seems to have taken observers by surprise. Over the weekend, the fundamentalist regime announced a dramatic increase in the price of state-subsidized fuel and stepped up rationing to stabilize supplies. Nationwide protests erupted, and many of those demonstrations were not peaceful. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded by calling the demonstrators “thugs” and warning of a potential crackdown if the protests continued. But his superficially dismissive posture toward the broad-based demonstrators was betrayed by the regime’s decision to shut down Internet access to the outside world. The few reports and videos that have trickled out of the Islamic Republic suggests that the police, military, and paramilitary response to these demonstrations has (for now) been uncharacteristically muted. What’s more, the target of the public’s ire is unquestionably the regime in Tehran.
These expressions of distaste for the Iranian regime coincide with a series of related protests in Iraq and Lebanon, both of which are struggling to assert their independence amid increased interference by Tehran. In Iraq, protests over corruption quickly came to be typified by attacks on the symbols of Iranian dominance that pepper the landscape. Those protests were met with force by Iran-backed militias and government forces, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 protesters and the wounding of thousands more. Likewise, anti-austerity protests (including resistance to a tax on the popular mobile service WhatsApp) in Lebanon has taken on a distinctly anti-Iranian flavor.
Though it’s not clear where these demonstrations will end, it is clear where they began: with the illegitimacy of the Iranian regime.
The Trump administration’s pressure on the terrorist group Hezbollah, which operates as a semi-governmental entity in Lebanon, increased restrictions on state-owned banks and exacerbated the country’s economic hardships. A Hezbollah-led effort to disperse protesters has focused demonstrator’s attention on the foreign organization that wields so much influence over the country’s politics. Even within the terrorist organization, a crisis of confidence in Iran’s mission in Lebanon is brewing.
The Iraqi crisis, too, is years in the making. As a cache of secret Iranian documents obtained by The Intercept shows, the extensive Iranian covert and overt influence over Iraqi governmental affairs that followed America’s precipitous withdrawal in 2011 was both extensive and overreaching. Amid the rise of ISIS, one 2014 intelligence cable sent back to Tehran warned that the brutal actions of the Iran-backed Shiite militias risked alienating the public. Washington relied upon these militias to maintain order where the Iraqi security forces could not. “This policy of Iran in Iraq has allowed the Americans to return to Iraq with greater legitimacy,” the dispatch warned. “And groups and individuals who had been fighting against the Americans among the Sunnis are now wishing that not only America, but even Israel, would enter Iraq and save Iraq from Iran’s clutches.”
The unrest in Iran cannot be seen in isolation from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The slow-motion collapse of the Iranian rial as the White House ramped up sanction on almost every sector of the Iranian economy contributed to the protests in 2017 and 2018, and a dramatic decline in the revenue once generated by oil exports has rendered Tehran’s domestic energy subsidies untenable. “They lie and say America is the enemy,” said one woman as she was filmed bravely tearing an anti-American propaganda banner. “Our enemy is right here in Iran.”
Last week, as a result of the information obtained in a spectacular Israeli intelligence coup, Iran was implicated in a long-running effort to violate the terms of the 2015 nuclear accords, validating the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions. The campaign this White House is waging against the Iranian regime has found tens of thousands of natural allies across the Middle East. It’s not a foregone conclusion that the people who suffer under Iran’s yoke will know freedom, but the popular demonstrations have made one thing clear. The obstacle to peace in this region is and remains the criminal theocracy in Tehran, not the responsible nations that oppose it.