Thomas Erdbrink is at it again. The New York Times Tehran bureau chief told readers in November that Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric had pushed the Iranian people into the arms of a regime they detest. Iranians begged to differ: A few weeks after Erdbrink’s story appeared, hundreds of thousands of them poured into the streets in opposition to clerical rule.
Confronted with this apparent discrepancy between reality and his thesis, Erdbrink filed a December 29 dispatch–from Niseko, Japan–that described the protests as “scattered” and concerned mainly with the “government’s handling of the economy.” Meanwhile, in actually existing Iran, the protests had spread from Mashhad, in the northeast, to some two-dozen cities. And the people were chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic,” “Death to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei,” and “Death to the Principle of the Guardianship” of the mullahs–not “Death to Inflation.” Erdbrink could have gotten wind of these slogans via Twitter and other social media outlets. Instead, he mostly relied on quotes from regime figures and pro-regime think-tankers keen to frame the uprising as apolitical.
Nearly a week since the protests erupted, Erdbrink remains committed to his earlier conclusions. Witness his January 2 dispatch, this time from the Iranian capital. “Hard-Liners and Reformers Tapped Iranians’ Ire. Now Both Are Protest Targets,” reads the headline, and the body of the article suggests that the current revolt was instigated by these two competing factions inside the regime.
The Tehran regime is invested in the hard-liners-versus-moderates-and-reformers narrative. It is a classic good-cop-bad-cop routine with many useful applications in foreign diplomacy. Numerous Western statesmen and intellectuals have fallen for it since the regime’s founding in 1979. Back then, another writer for the Times, Princeton’s Richard Falk, wrote of how the Ayatollah Khomeini’s “entourage of supporters is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals”–shortly before the Khomeinists staged a decade-long orgy of torture and summary execution. Ever since, finding and supporting regime moderates has been a cornerstone of U.S. and European policy toward Iran.
President Hasan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of anti-Western, Islamist theocrats to be cast as the Great Smiling Moderate–opportunistically by the regime itself, naively by the Western foreign-policy establishment. Vocal Western support for the protesters would be foolish and downright reckless if the uprising is partly an attempt by the Medieval Hard-Liners to damage the Great Smiling Moderate. This is little more than Persian intrigue. Don’t help the hard-liners bring down this good man!
In Erdbrink’s account, it was Rouhani himself who kicked things off by exposing the extent of financial support for religious foundations and the security apparatus baked into a government budget:
The initial catalyst for the anger appears to have been the leak by President Rouhani last month of a proposed government budget. For the first time, secret parts of the budget, including details of the country’s religious institutes, were exposed. Iranians discovered that billions of dollars were going to hard-line organizations, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and religious foundations that enrich the clerical elite. At the same time, the budget proposed to end cash subsidies for millions of citizens, increase fuel prices and privatize public schools…. Last Thursday, hard-liners tried to take back the initiative and embarrass the president, staging a demonstration in the holy city Mashhad, where hundreds chanted slogans against the weak economy and shouted ‘death to the dictator’ and ‘death to Rouhani.’
Let’s break that down: So Rouhani released a portion of the budget, normally kept secret, that detailed funding for unpopular entities within the regime. He did this knowing that the leak would incite popular anger, but also calculating that he and his own executive branch would be spared the people’s wrath. Next, a hard-line Friday prayer leader in a conservative city (Mashhad) encouraged his flock to denounce the presidency. But then some of those Mashhad protesters took things too far by chanting against the regime as a whole. The hard-liners thus created a nationwide uprising, even though they normally loathe any spontaneous displays of people power.
Each of the steps here is rather implausible, and Erdbrink connects them all into one even more implausible chain of causality. “Whenever the hard-liners want an anti-Rouhani protest they can easily mobilize their own base,” Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me. “They do not need to bring ordinary Iranians to the streets which they know they can’t control.” Iranians likewise didn’t need the hard-liners to organize them. Indeed, they had been staging such protests for years on a smaller scale. “What was different this time was that after years, participants were finally fed up with the regime’s promises and clearly understood their economic problem is rooted in the political structure of the regime. Anti-regime chants were dominant even on the first day.”
Iranians don’t make New York Times-style distinctions between its various byzantine factions. Maybe we in the West should stop with the factional charade as well.
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