Protests erupted in Iran soon after the government admitted to having accidentally shot down a passenger plane killing 176 people. That disaster took place amid escalating tensions with the US over the killing of Qassem Suleimani, head of the country’s powerful Quds force. The crowds have called on their supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down, and security forces have responded with teargas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition. In one of the most visceral displays of anger so far, a young man climbed up a billboard depicting Suleimani. After making it to the top, he kicked the picture and eventually dragged it down.
The apparent shift in the public’s attitude towards its government has puzzled some observers. Just a week ago, Iranians appeared to be united in mourning the loss of a revered general but today they are taking to the streets against the ruling elite. In an attempt to explain the apparent contradiction, some have claimed that the mourning was inauthentic, regime propaganda that has been unquestioningly swallowed by western media. In contrast, others argue that today’s protests are the “real Iran”, and represent the authentic face of the country. According to Donald Trump, the Iranians who refused to step on an American flag painted at the entrance to a building were “wonderful” and their behaviour a sign of “big progress”. So which is it? Is Iran a nation of people easily coerced into participating in pro-regime rallies or a country of brave souls willing to risk their lives for justice?
Of course, the binary view of Iran that underlies this bewilderment is misguided and reductive. The complex attitudes of protesters are surprising only to those who see the country as a monolith. They have accepted the superficial caricature of a nation in which there can only be one national mood – a fickle place where shouts of “Death to America” are replaced with the anti-regime cry of “Death to the Dictator” overnight. Today, Iran is a terrorist nation where the people mourn the death of a brutal regime general, and tomorrow they become stalwarts of democracy, putting their lives on the line to oppose their authoritarian regime. These one-dimensional interpretations are often the result of cherry-picking events in order to match whatever preconceived notions are held about the “true” nature of the country. But that is no substitute for real understanding.
Although it might seem obvious, it’s worth restating that Iran is a diverse nation of more than 80 million people. It has an intricate bureaucracy and various centres of political power. The state and social forces seldom act in concert on any issue. People have strong political opinions and a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. No, not all of Iran was united in its grief for Suleimani, but not all of Iran is trying to topple the regime either. The authorities have a history of holding state-sponsored rallies and boosting numbers at them by incentivising attendance, but to claim everyone who came out to mourn Suleimani was forced to do so is implausible. Individuals who are protesting against the government are risking much more than those who attended state-sponsored memorials. But why are we assuming that there is no overlap? There are reports of people who attended both. This is because the demands of members of the public are many and varied. Iranians are more than capable of condemning foreign threats against their sovereignty as well as the regime’s domestic repression.
Unfortunately, superficial readings of Iran, which prevent a realistic assessment of what’s going on, are fully embraced by members of the current US administration, convinced that their so-called maximum-pressure policy is working. They continue to claim that the 2015 nuclear deal, rather than being a considerable diplomatic achievement, started the cycle of escalation between the two countries. In a nationally televised address from the White House on 8 January, President Trump blamed the former president, Barack Obama, for Iran’s missile attack against US bases, stating, “The missiles fired ... at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
As the situation changed, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was quick to side with anti-regime protesters, remarking, “The voice of the Iranian people is clear.” He assumes that this public unrest will weaken the Islamic Republic. And while it is possible that the protests will create a crisis of legitimacy for the regime in the short run, banking on sustained “economic pressure, diplomatic isolation and military deterrence” to force the public to rise up and overthrow their masters would be a big misreading of the complex state-society dynamics in the country. If US hawks view the trouble on the streets as a sign that their strategy is working and try to stoke it, they will in fact be weakening those Iranians who favour compromise and strengthening the hardliners who want to see more confrontation.
That the powerful are prepared to accept a monolithic picture of Iran is especially worrying at a time when open conflict seems more likely. There is no analyst who can write about what all Iranians believe. Think about how challenging it is gauging public opinion in western nations, let alone in a nation that has been isolated from the rest of the world for the past four decades. Treating Iran like an analytical buffet table, choosing to accept only those facts that fit your agenda, is a recipe for misunderstanding with potentially fatal consequences.
Reza H Akbari is a programme manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting
This article first appeared in the Guardian