By Colum Lynch, Keith Johnson, Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy: The Iranian regime’s campaign to portray itself as a victim of U.S. aggression following the assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani has turned into a public relations disaster at home and around the world as thousands of anti-government protesters have poured into the streets, expressing outrage over the government’s lies.
After three days of denial, Tehran took responsibility for firing a surface-to-air missile attack that downed a Ukrainian airliner near the Tehran international airport, killing 176 people, including Iranian, Canadian, German and Swedish nationals. The admission came after Ukrainian technicians detected missile parts mixed with the wreckage, undermining denials by Iranian officials. Iranian officials admitted that the mistake occurred because the regime’s air defenses were on high alert following a retaliatory missile strike on two Iraqi bases last week.
But that was only the latest misrepresentation from the Iranian regime that has fueled demonstrations against the rulers of the Islamic Republic. U.S. President Donald Trump, who on Jan. 2 ordered the killing of Suleimani, Iran’s top general, has been quick to encourage the protesters and warn Tehran against suppressing them. Trump tweeted a carefully worded message of support in Farsi and on Sunday morning added:
“To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free!” Trump tweeted. “Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!”
For some observers, the spontaneous protests over the weekend mark a potentially lethal challenge to Iran’s leaders, though the regime has managed to ruthlessly crush such demonstrations in the past. “Regime change is in the air,” tweeted former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, a longtime advocate of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, early Sunday.
But others cautioned that the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran have little chance of ending in the toppling of the regime, which has been in place for 40 years. “It’s not going to happen,” said Hussein Ibish, a Middle East expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute, who argues that the demonstrators represent only one sector of Iranian society. Ibish said that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has achieved more than anyone expected in establishing a deterrent and inflicting harsh economic pain on the regime, but history has few examples of such external pressure—short of military intervention—bringing down a regime. In the past, he noted, such action only strengthened the rule of leaders from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The sudden outburst of popular ire over the weekend stands in sharp contrast to the apparent Iranian national unity in the wake of the U.S. killing of Suleimani, which drove millions into the streets of Iran for funeral processions. In contrast, protesters at multiple universities over the weekend reportedly chanted “Suleimani is a murderer, the leader is a traitor,” and “Death to the Dictator,” a reference to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other protesters called for the resignation of top security officials responsible for both the accidental downing of the airliner and attempted cover-up.
Especially noteworthy, just days after the regime-orchestrated funeral processions, was the apparent popular disregard for regime instructions. Videos showed students at Tehran’s Beheshti University going out of their way to avoid stepping on American and Israeli flags that regime officials had laid out on the ground. Another PR body blow came when Iran’s sole female Olympic medalist, Kimia Alizadeh, defected, saying she did not want to be complicit with the regime’s “corruption and lies.”
The latest wave of protests includes students and middle class Iranians, a contrast to the largely working-class demonstrators who took to the streets last year. The size of this weekend’s student mobilizations in particular could be an ominous sign for the regime, given students’ historical role as a vanguard of change in Iran.
“Students brought them to power, and students can be part of the equation that takes them out of power as well,” said Alireza Nader, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The protests, coming on the heels of months-long demonstrations against Iranian economic mismanagement, only add to the pressure on an already embattled Iranian leadership. Iran’s economy is in free-fall and the country faces a renewed campaign of economic pressure by the United States. Iran has tried repeatedly to force European signatories of the 2015 nuclear pact to deliver some of that deal’s promised economic benefits—in part by restarting its uranium enrichment and edging closer to building a nuclear weapons. But Iran’s tactics so far have only made European countries more willing to kill the deal altogether.
The grassroots anger has dramatically undercut efforts by Iranian officials, especially Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to portray Iran on U.S. news outlets as the victim of a reckless American president and to curry favor with the Europeans. The message was also undermined by Iran’s brief detention of Britain’s ambassador to Iran, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
The diplomat had come out in the streets to take part in what began as a memorial procession after the airline disaster at a demonstration in the capital.
“Very concerned about the temporary detention of the UK Ambassador @HMATehran in Iran. Full respect of the Vienna convention is a must,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi defended Iran’s action, replying: “He wasn’t detained, but arrested as unknown foreigner in an illegal gathering. When police informed me a man’s arrested who claims to be UK Amb, I said IMPOSSIBLE! only after my phone conversation w him I identified, out of big surprise, that it’s him. 15 min later he was free.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s senior diplomats and military officials spent the day Saturday offering apologies on Twitter for having insisted their government was not at fault in the downing of the airliner. Especially contrite was Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, who had insisted that it was impossible for Iran to have been responsible.
“In my statement yesterday to the UK media, I conveyed the official findings of responsible authorities in my country that missiles could not be fired and hit the Ukrainian plane at that period of time,” Baeidinejad wrote Saturday on Twitter. “I apologize and regret for conveying such wrong findings.
Baeidinejad and other senior Iranian diplomats sought to insulate the government’s leadership from charges of lying about Iran’s role in the attack, saying that the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had not delivered his final conclusion until Friday night, after the government had already denied responsibility.
But it was not enough to placate many Iranians, who headed out into the street chanting slogans suggesting that Iran, not the United States, bore the greatest share of responsibility for the current state of crisis—especially after Tehran initially claimed, in another misrepresentation, that it had killed 80 U.S. troops in a retaliatory strike. The missile strikes on two bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops were later deemed ineffective, causing no casualties, in yet another blow to Iran’s credibility.
Though Trump has repeatedly said he is not seeking regime change in Iran, his active tweeting contrasted with his hands-off attitude during last year’s wave of protest. This came just days after having threatened to obliterate dozens of Iranian cultural sites amidst the standoff with Tehran after the Suleimani killing.
“To the brave and suffering Iranian people: I have stood with you since the beginning of my presidency and my government will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely. Your courage is inspiring,” Trump tweeted.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered similar messages of support. “America hears you. America supports you. America stands with you,” he tweeted.
What’s unclear is just how the United States can square its rhetorical support for the Iranian people with an intensifying campaign of economic pressure. On Friday, in the wake of Iran’s missile retaliation against Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, the Trump administration announced a fresh slate of sanctions on some Iranian economic sectors, such as metals. Those sanctions come on top of a host of other crippling measures that have all but ended Iran’s exports of crude oil—a major source of revenue—as well as measures targeting its finance and broader energy sectors.
Nader said despite the administration’s desire to support Iranians while pressuring the regime, it’s hard to see any easy way to thread that needle. “The real hurt comes from sanctions that undermine the economy, unfortunately,” he said. He said proponents of the maximum pressure campaign believe that economic pressure, while damaging to regular people in the short term, will create fissures inside the regime that could accelerate its downfall.
Trump’s allies in Congress have cheered the protests, which they see as vindication for the president’s order to kill Suleimani.
“The American left and media cover relentlessly for Iran’s murderous regime,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton wrote on Twitter. “But the brave people of Iran are not fooled. They have no illusions about the evil men who rule them.”
Bolton sounded giddy on Twitter.
“The Khamenei regime has never been under more stress. Regime change is in the air. The people of Iran can see it. America, Eruope, France should not try to prop up or negotiate with its illegitimate representatives.”
While Bolton has predicted regime change in Iran before, some observers say that the combination of years of resentment, economic dissatisfaction, and the regime’s handling of the airliner disaster have come together to create a uniquely vulnerable moment for the Iranian leadership.
“I believe Bolton is right, regime change is in the air,” said Nader. “It’s not just the protests and the airliner, it’s 40 years of pent-up resentment—and that’s all been released in the last two years.”
Ibish said that Iran is a politically diverse country, with large swaths of the country loyal to the regime, and a large passionate opposition.
“There are many different constituencies and coalitions in Iran and it is not surprising that there are very robust voices in angry opposition to the Suleimani killing and angry opposition to the government, based on socioeconomic grievances of the past year and the constant lying and the structural incompetence that leads to action liking the shooting down of the airplane, which killed a lot of Iranians,” Ibish said.
“Iran is in rough shape: It’s in rough shape in Lebanon, it’s in rough shape in Iraq, and there is obviously a lot of tension inside the country,” Ibish said. But those problems don’t necessarily translate into an existential crisis for the regime.
“I see no evidence this is a revolutionary situation. I don’t see this regime being toppled from within or without,” he said.
First published in Foreign Policy. Cartoon by Bart van Leeuwen.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.