Iran’s population is inhibited by something that could actually be its strength: its diversity. The recent protests are no cause for rejoicing.
Burned-out gas station after protests in Tehran on Nov. 17 Photo by Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh/ISNA/ap
No leadership, no strategy, barely namable demands. The recent protests in Iran lacked everything, including, tragically, any self-protection. Two hundred dead, maybe more. What did they die for? Compared to other uprisings around the world right now against social inequality, oppression and corrupt rule, two major disparities stand out when looking at Iran.
First, despite a base of radical malcontents numbering many millions, there is a lack of any organization, of allyship; the recent scale of arson attests to this weakness; anger finds no vessel. Second, the strong and well-connected Iranian diaspora is not in a position to remedy this vacuum.
For example, Sudan before the fall of the Bashir regime: Internet blocked, excessive violence by the military, hundreds dead. But the democracy movement maintained cohesion, remained non-violent, supported by diaspora Sudanese who are familiar with the reality in the country. To be sure, Tehran’s rule is more efficiently secured. But is that due solely to unique repression? Always seeing the Islamic Republic as a solitary evil and avoiding any comparison blocks a better understanding of the situation.
As for the weakness of the opposition, repression explains much, but not everything. Teachers, pensioners, and factory workers have repeatedly succeeded in public protests; truck drivers have even successfully gone on strike nationwide. But there is a lack of unifying elements beyond the individual; from the large reservoir of dissatisfaction, frustration and hatred, there is no idea of how everything could be better, no idea of an alternative.
Society has changed rapidly
Explaining this is not easy. In 1978/79, the lowest common denominator, the rejection of the monarchy, was enough to overthrow it. Today, a population twice as large and much better educated is apparently inhibited by a diversity that could actually be its strength. Society has changed rapidly in the past 15 years, but in disparate directions.
More cosmopolitanism and cultural modernization, especially among the middle class, but at the same time a triumph of consumerism and neoliberal models of life. Traditional ties are dissolving, and trust in one another is eroding. Many older people worry about a decline in values; some Iranians abroad who see their homeland again after many years are frightened.
In addition to the material impoverishment caused by sanctions and mismanagement, there is, especially among the poorer classes, a social and psychological impoverishment, a conglomerate of drug addiction, depression and aggression. In the recent turmoil, much of the despair of the marginalized broke out. Unemployed and day laborers may have only nihilistic violence at their disposal.
That some voices in the diaspora are now idealizing this kind of uprising, as if it were a model of radicalism and system opposition, seems strange. The Iranians want an overthrow, they say. A Persian saying fits such fantasies from a safe foreign country: Your breath comes from a warm place.
Syria in view
There is no doubt that the longing for serious change is enormous. But the idea that most Iranians have nothing to lose but their chains is misguided. With an eye on Syria, they fear, with good reason, bloody chaos, the disintegration of the country or its dismemberment from the outside (Iran consists of almost half ethnic minorities).
After recently even ambulances were set on fire, the concern that provocateurs are at work in the actions is also justified: These can be right-wing ultras who want to fuel the internal power struggle in the Islamic Republic final; mistakenly, they are difficult to distinguish from foreign-paid agents.
The U.S. State Department expressed satisfaction after the unrest and called on protesters to network with the U.S. – knowing full well that even a retweet by the State Department can trigger an arrest in Iran.
In this field riddled with cynicism, it is becoming increasingly unclear who counts as opposition. Monarchists are increasingly appearing, and their flags were flying in Hamburg. Iranian Nazis even spoke out on Twitter. And some German activists for human rights in Iran are now siding with U.S. policy on the grounds that EU criticism of Iran is too lax.
The moderate faction is at the end
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic is increasingly eluding any influence from the West. Twenty months after Trump’s breach of the nuclear deal, the moderate faction in Tehran is politically finished. President Rohani is likely to lose his majority in parliamentary elections in February; a far-right or military government could follow.
In its search for strategic partners, Tehran is increasingly looking eastward, according to a study by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, toward China, Russia and India. Iran is becoming more Asian.
Those who have always thought the Islamic Republic unreformable may rejoice as all hope for positive change in Iran is extinguished. Indeed, the sense of abandonment that is now spreading is staggering.
Historian Hashem Aghajari, who used to be part of the left wing of the reformers and survived a death sentence, describes his country thus: "We have in Iran today a society that resembles a body that is missing its head, a huge body whose limbs, however, have fallen apart. There is no representative of this society, no spokesman, no institution that could speak on behalf of this society."