by Behnam Ben Taleblu
More than a month has passed since protests in Iran’s northeast metastasized into anti-regime demonstrations across the entire country. This outpouring of discontent, which took the United States almost completely by surprise, should help lay to rest a range of tenuous assumptions about Iranian politics that had become conventional wisdom in Washington—namely, an underestimation of the Iranian people’s willingness to oppose the regime and an overestimation of Iran’s reformers. Now, as Washington weighs how to address the multitude of challenges emanating from Iran, it must also reconsider the foundations of its knowledge about the country.
The first myth the protests put to rest was not something overtly discussed in Washington but rather a background assumption of most private conversations about Iran. This myth held that given the regime’s success in suppressing the Green Movement in the summer of 2009 and beyond, the Iranian people lacked the resolve to continue protesting, making additional widespread demonstrations against the government unlikely. Further, it alleged that the regime was experiencing a boon of popularity among the Iranian people, thanks to rising nationalism, fear of a war-ravaged Middle East, and Iranians’ disdain for the new U.S. administration.
But such an assessment misreads the Iranian people’s century-long struggle for equitable and representative government, which they have not abandoned despite constant disappointment. First, the recent protests nullify by their very existence the myth of Iranian irresolution, since ordinary people—albeit from a somewhat different social stratum than that of the demonstrators from 2009—have risked life and limb to protest Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with chants of “Death to the dictator!” Videos can also be found on social media featuring members of the Basij paramilitary (instrumental in the 2009 clampdown) burning their registration cards as a symbol of dissent. Further signaling their bravery, protesters praisedMohammad Reza (Shah) Pahlavi, the founder of Iran’s last monarchial dynasty, transgressing the taboo of publicly lauding the ancien régime. Notably, this pro-Pahlavi slogan was repeated in Khomein, the hometown of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father.
Second, this myth conflates Iranian nationalism with support for the regime. Recent reporting on the former has omitted that there are long-standing nationalist critiques of the Islamic Republic. Iranian nationalists have almost four decades of evidence that the regime puts ideology over national interest. Case in point is the regime’s obsession with Israel, with which Iranians have historically had no land dispute. In March 2016, Iran flight-tested ballistic missiles with inscriptions invoking genocide against Israel, even as the government has perpetuated multiple environmental crises on the home front. And in 2013, an Iranian security official claimed that it was more important to defend Syria than Iran’s oil-producing province of Khuzestan. Slogans chanted during the protests, such as “Leave Syria and think about us,” should remind audiences of the sharp cleavage that exists between the priorities of the regime versus those of the people.
Third, this myth grossly overlooks the history of post-2009 demonstrations in Iran, some of which set the precedent for the outpouring this past December. For example, in 2016 Iranians celebrated Cyrus Day by flocking en masse to the tomb of Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, who remains a prominent Iranian nationalist figure to this day. The organizers of this rally were arrested, and last year the government took steps to impede attendance of the event. Although Western outlets habitually cover pro-regime protests held on holidays, there is insufficient reportage and analysis on how protests punctuate daily life in Iran, highlighting the people’s desire to use every possible opportunity to contest the regime. This is particularly true for more localized demonstrations outside Tehran involving labor groups or ethnic minorities.
Selectively tuning in and out of protests in Iran risks minimizing the continuity evident in the struggle of the Iranian people, including their commitment to the power of the street even after previous popular protests have been crushed. This is something U.S. foreign policy should recognize if the Iranian people are a force they wish to support.
The second myth pertains to Iran’s ailing reform movement. It holds that since Iranians have previously opted for reform, reformists remain the most likely drivers of political change. This narrative is the result of a long-standing selection bias: most Western analysts and journalists have better access to reformist politicians, journalists, and academics than they do to conservative and hard-line elements of Iranian society, including veterans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Often, Western Iran watchers prefer reading well-written reformist newspapers such as Shargh and Etemaad, which traffic less in conspiracy theory and invective than do hard-line papers such as Kayhan or Vatan-e Emrooz. As a result, they seriously overestimate the power and influence of the reformists.
Over the past decade, prominent Iranian reformists, such as former President Mohammad Khatami and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, have faced show trials, house arrest, and media bans. As a result, they have become ornamental figures in Iran’s political system, periodically highlighted in order to offset foreign criticism of the regime and otherwise ignored. As exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf boldly wrote to Mostafa Tajzadeh, a luminary in the reform movement, “Your reforms have caused the continuation of tyranny.”
Makhmalbaf’s charge gets to the paradox of the reformists: most of them still believe in the fundamentals of a system that has proven itself unreformable. Worse, as the regime has coarsened over time, they have become increasingly risk-averse. Reformist commentary during the recent demonstrations essentially rejected street power, offering a message of restraint out of touch with the slogans being chanted by the protesters. And when reformist leaders do decide to take a tougher stance, they still refrain from targeting the root of Iran’s ills: the regime. Consider a January 30 public letter by Mehdi Karroubi (a former Speaker of Parliament now under house arrest) chiding Khamenei for his authoritarianism and hollowing out of state institutions. In that letter, Karroubi still extolled the vision of Khamenei’s predecessor, Khomeini, just days after people were killed and jailed for protesting the very regime Khomeini established.
A misplaced focus on the reformists can also obscure developments within different segments of Iranian society. As prominent human rights lawyer Gissou Nia explained in early January, Washington’s laser-like focus on the city of Tehran, the reformist base, has led it to ignore people who live on the geographic and political periphery of the Islamic Republic (such as ethnic and religious minorities). This—along with inertia in the community of Iran analysts—helps explain why the protests caught many off-guard.
To be clear, these are not the only U.S. myths about Iran. Another is that of an urban-rural divide on foreign policy, which assumes that more conservative semi-urban and rural populations support the Islamic Republic’s ideological crusades across the region. In 2009, Tehrani elites and members of the Green Movement protested Iran’s foreign involvement with chants of “No to Gaza and Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran.” In 2017, that chant was heard across Iran in cities and rural towns.
There is, finally, the myth that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal is creating space to address non-nuclear issues, such as the plight of the Iranian people. But although Iranian reformists were quick to praise the accord, in the two and a half years since it was agreed to, concern over the JCPOA’s future has dominated nearly every U.S. discussion about Iran—even those that relate to the protests—in effect crowding out other issues. Worse, genuine attempts to have a dialogue about supporting human rights in Iran, including by targeting the persons and entities that engage in repression, are dismissed by the JCPOA’s defenders as simply a pretext to scrap the deal.
If anything, the recent protests are proof positive that analysts should continually test their assumptions about Iran and Iranian society. But equally important is the aggregate effect of the aforementioned myths on how outsiders perceive Iran’s trajectory. If the country continues to be seen through the same flawed framework, then the next round of protests will also come as a surprise. But this will hide the cumulative nature of Iranians’ discontent.
For instance, before, throughout, and after the protests, Iranians have been participating in a civil disobedience campaign to challenge the mandatory veiling of women. This may sound new but is in fact a stepped-up version of a campaign in the summer of 2017 to wear white on Wednesdays to protest the same issue. Understanding the importance of such movements requires abandoning old myths.
This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.