Iranian president addresses nation amid protests as regime cracks down on social media

The question until now has been “How big are the protests really? Big enough to draw some media coverage and provoke social media chatter, sure, but not big enough (yet) for the regime to unleash its goon squads. The BBC noted yesterday that the “demonstrations do not appear to be taking place on a massive scale” and a pro-mullah rally organized by the leadership brought thousands of loyalists into the streets in a bit of muscle-flexing. Clearly Khamenei and Rouhani, the country’s supreme leader and its “moderate” puppet president, respectively, were gambling that the protests would begin to die down on their own without any provocative violence by the state.

Twenty-four hours later, with demonstrations still raging, they appear to have concluded that they’ve lost that gamble. The answer to “How big are the protests really?” is “Big enough now to have the regime threatening overtly to crack heads.”

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed to crush one of the biggest shows of dissent against the government in years, as days of confrontations between demonstrators and security forces turned deadly in a western province. Stocks fell…

Protesters “must certainly know that improper behavior will be to their detriment, and the nation will come out and stand against these actions and throw a hard punch in their faces,” the Revolutionary Guard’s commander for security in Tehran, Brigadier General Esmail Kowsari, said according to a statement carried by the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency late Saturday.

At least two people are already dead, shot last night in the city of Dorud. (The regime blames “foreign agents” for the killings, natch.) Iran’s parliamentary national-security committee has called an emergency meeting for this week to discuss next steps. Popular social media apps have also been blocked to try to prevent protesters from organizing:

The restrictions on messaging app Telegram and photo sharing app Instagram are “temporary”, state news agency Irib reported…

Telegram in particular is very popular in Iran, with more than 50% of the country’s 80m population said to be active on the app.

Presumably the entire Internet will be shut down soon if the protests continue. If the U.S. government (or the Israeli defense ministry) doesn’t have some high-altitude means of providing independent Internet to rebels in situations like these, a la Google’s Project Loon, then the Pentagon’s cyberdivision needs a serious tactical rethink. Internet access is especially important this time because the protests are fully grassroots, with no organizing leadership. Eight years ago during the Green Revolution the focus of the demonstrations was Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s presidential opponent; Mousavi’s been under house arrest for years, though, and the Shah’s son has been in exile for decades. If revolution is coming, Internet access for Iranians that’s beyond the power of the government to block may be the only option for coordination.

Given Trump’s cheerleading for the protests, he’d probably be game for blasting a virtual hole in Iran’s Internet firewall:

I’d be curious to know from tech experts what it would cost Uncle Sam to provide free satellite-based WiFi for the entire planet, or at least for third-world countries where the U.S. would benefit from regime change. Wrest control of the Internet from the hands of oppressive regimes and put it in our own, spreading the word internationally about how to access the network. Then, the next time an Iran situation develops, protesters are good to go. And if jihadis and assorted other bad guys are dumb enough to use U.S. WiFi for their own plotting too, great. The NSA will be hoovering up everything that enters the system. I don’t see an obvious downside apart from the potential expense, and even there, everything is graded on a curve when it comes to defense spending. Northrop Grumman spent a cool $23 billion developing the new B-21 bomber and estimates the average cost per unit to be $606 million. Would, say, $50 billion for off-the-shelf Internet in potentially revolutionary situations like this one be worth the cost, given the damage Iran’s current regime could, and does, do to American interests abroad? Sure seems like it.

Rumors that Rouhani would speak to the nation circulated this morning but were denied by his office. Then, a few hours later, came confirmation. He spoke this afternoon, mouthing a few platitudes about the right to protest — so long as it doesn’t endanger security! — and jabbing at Trump. A presidential address is another sign that the crisis is deepening, needless to say. Rouhani’s role as a “moderate” is to play the good cop (or the less terrible cop) to Khamenei’s bad cop; every few years the regime installs a moderate through a rigged election to try to placate younger Iranians who are dissatisfied with rule by fanatics and to make it a bit easier to negotiate with the west. Rouhani hasn’t been spared during the protests so far, though. Among the slogans being chanted, per the WSJ, are “We don’t want an Islamic Republic, we don’t want it, we don’t want it,” “They are using Islam as an excuse to drive people crazy,” and, most tellingly, “Reformists, hard-liners, Game is over.” Good cop/bad cop is a game but Rouhani’s quasi-legitimacy depends upon it not being seen that way. Part of the reason why he addressed the nation, I assume, was to try to restore the perception that he has meaningful authority over policy. The less respect there is for Rouhani and his office, the harder it is for the mullahs to keep selling the public on the idea that they have a functioning democracy rather than a pitiful simulacrum of it.

By the way, if you have the sense that the protests are being undercovered by U.S. media, you’re not alone. It could be that’s a simple function of access: It can’t be easy for American outlets to manage on-the-ground reporting in Iran during moments of unrest, when the regime is frantic to stifle the perception that it’s losing control. But there could also be an agenda at work. Lee Smith makes the case at Tablet:

Americans were systematically bombarded by craven regime “talking points” on mainstream and elite media throughout the Obama presidency—because the president had his eye on making a historic deal with Iran that would secure his “legacy.” Anyone who suggested that there was no real difference between Iranian moderates and hardliners, that the regime will spend its money on its foreign wars, not its own people, was shouted down. Anyone who also belonged to the pro-Israel community—meaning that they cared, among other things, about democratic governance in the Middle East—was denounced as a deceitful dual loyalist who thirsted to send innocent American boys off to war. You know, like those hook-nosed banker cartoons that once enlivened the pages of German newspapers.

Of course it’s difficult to understand what’s happening in Iran now—the Obama White House and the press sidelined anyone who was not on board with the president’s main political goal. To sell the public on the Iran Deal, the Obama administration promoted hack “reporters” and “experts” who would peddle its fairy-tale story-lines, while setting social media mobs on whoever was brave or stupid or naïve or well-informed enough to cast doubt on its cock-eyed picture of Iran—including independent reporters like David Sanger of the Times, as well as the president’s entire first-term foreign policy cabinet.

Americans were assured the nuclear deal would be good for us twice over, purchasing a hiatus in Iran’s program to highly enrich uranium and hopefully softening the attraction of radicalism by raising the country’s standard of living as sanctions were relaxed. The deal did raise the standard of living — for Iran’s kleptocracy, which has applied the funds to regional imperialism and to its own bank accounts, not for the average citizen. Ironically, by *failing* to accomplish its goals, the deal may have helped make conditions on the grounds more conducive for the uprising we’re seeing now. Iranians were promised some economic improvement, an attractive bribe to encourage them to continue to tolerate rule by cretinous fanatics. Instead they got shafted. Maybe enough have finally had enough.

Here’s Lindsey Graham making a similar point about Obama’s failed approach.

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