“Today, we can say that this is the end of the 96 sedition,” said the head of the Revolutionary Guard on Wednesday, referring to the Islamic calendar year (1396). But meh — of course he’d say that. It’s more regime propaganda.
Hold on, though. Yesterday western media began reporting a drop off in the protests too. “At this moment, the government appears to have this under control — this is discontent, not revolution,” a former intel official told NBC, adding, “People so far are moving away from something — the status quo — but not embracing something else, revolution.” CBS’s sources on the ground in Iran also reported fewer demonstrations in the past few days thanks to deft suppression measures by the regime:
It wasn’t immediately clear if the drop in reports of new demonstrations challenging Iran’s theocratic government meant the protests were subsiding or that the authorities’ blocking of social media apps had managed to stop protesters from offering new images of rallies.
However, while CBS News sources in Iran said there were sporadic, small uprisings reported around the country, the deployment of thousands of security forces appeared to have largely restored order — by force and intimidation — in most places.
Still, no one wanted to jump the gun. The big day of protest in the Middle East traditionally is Friday, when everyone’s at the mosque. People file out afterward and, if dissent is in the air, they gather for demonstrations. Friday, not yesterday, would be the acid test of whether the protests really are dwindling. It’s past 10 p.m. in Iran as I write this, though, and if there were any mass gatherings anywhere today they’re not on the wires. The only major demonstration appears to have been a pro-regime rally organized by the government itself, the third day in a row that hardliners have been brought out into the streets to counter the anti-government message. What happened?
A little heavy-handed ruthlessness was involved, of course — 50 people were killed this week, according to one opposition group. But by and large the mullahs stuck with less provocative means of quelling the rallies, fearing that a Tiananmen-style response might backfire by inflaming the protests instead of dousing them. They arrested people, possibly as many as a thousand; they shut down popular social media apps so that protesters couldn’t communicate; they encouraged their fans and goons to demonstrate in order to try to drown out the protesters’ demands. At no point, it seems, did the demonstrations grow to the size of the ones during the Green Revolution in 2009.
But all’s not lost. The encouraging things about the protests are that, by all accounts, they were entirely bottom-up, they targeted fake “moderates” like Rouhani along with the supreme leader, Khamenei, and they brought out Iran’s working class, the sort of people to whom the clerics typically appeal. CNN has a useful summary of the “triple whammy” hitting downscale Iranians right now, with food prices up, gas prices on their way up, and welfare payments down due to Rouhani’s “austerity” program. There’s no reason to think any of that’s changing soon, which means the discontent will linger and new demonstrations could begin at any moment. (Theoretically. The regime will obviously be on guard for a new round of protests now.) “[T]his is a long game,” writes David Ignatius, “and while the mullahs have the guns, they seem to have lost the public’s trust.”
A question now for the west: What to do to encourage further protests? The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting today to discuss the demonstrations but nothing meaningful will come from that. Russia will use its veto to protect its Iranian client, particularly since Putin doesn’t want to set a precedent of international support for anti-regime protests that might come back to bite him. Trump’s dilemma, as I noted a few days ago, is what to do with his upcoming decision about the nuclear deal. Should he continue to abide by it for now, suspending sanctions, or should he slap the sanctions back on and blow up the deal? I think he’s destined to do the latter on the theory that it’s unconscionable to release money to the regime while they’re busy stifling protests but Ignatius thinks it’s a bad idea. All it’ll do is divide the west, give the regime a rallying point for Iranian unity, and shift the focus from the protests to the fate of the nuclear program. Better to focus on Iran’s proxy forces abroad than start a fight over the nuclear deal.
Here’s Nikki Haley at the UNSC meeting.
Amb. Nikki Haley: "Today, the people of Iran are speaking to their government and their message is undeniable — stop the support for terrorism. Stop giving billions of our money to killers and dictators." https://t.co/seZt2H9Zxr pic.twitter.com/OlFjjrOYub
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 5, 2018