War on the Rocks:

By Afshon Ostovar and Henry Rome

Across the Middle East, protests are shaking the pillars of power. In Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, people have taken to the streets to express frustration with corruption, mismanagement, and austerity. While the protest movements in each country are rooted in domestic concerns particular to that country, Iran, as one of the main outside backers of powerful elites in both Lebanon and Iraq, is at the foundation of each crisis. The protests are a challenge to Iran’s legitimacy both regionally and at home and therefore constitute a severe political crisis that could have lasting strategic ramifications. Tehran’s crisis of legitimacy will endure regardless of whether the present uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran itself are suppressed in the near term. While the Iranian leadership may not recognize it, the protests reflect a broader rejection of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance among parts of the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian populations. And Iran’s playbook for responding to public concerns — repression, not concession — will only exacerbate the erosion of its standing over the longer term.

Iran has experienced its most significant turmoil in a decade. A decision by the regime to reduce subsidies on gasoline sparked mass demonstration across the country earlier this month. From Mashhad to Ahvaz, Iranians have taken to the streets to express their anger at the policy change, which increased the price of a liter of gas by at least 50 percent. For a segment of the Iranian public, who are already suffering under economic stress due to stifling U.S.-imposed sanctions and decades of economic mismanagement by Iran’s successive governments, the unexpected gas price hike was too much to take.

Iran has witnessed episodic, if not generational, waves of protests. The student protests of 1999 and the green wave protests in 2009 were similar in that both were fueled by reformist political hopes and triggered by regime injustice. With the University of Tehran as their epicenter, the 1999 protests were a collective explosion of frustration by students who had seen the unelected power centers of the regime routinely block the reformist promises of President Mohammad Khatami. Similarly, 10 years later, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets when the hardliner incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in an election marked by widespread irregularities and fraud. Although the protests began in condemnation of what was perceived to be a rigged election, the rhetoric of the demonstrators became more radicalized as the protesters were met with the violent suppression of police forces and Basij paramilitary units. The slogan “death to the dictator,” a reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, became one of the hallmarks of the 2009 protest movement. In other words, what had begun as a pro-reformist movement gradually took on anti-regime overtones. By comparison, the protests in December 2017 and January 2018 showcased anti-regime sloganeering very early on. These demonstrations began as hardline-instigated demonstrations against the Hassan Rouhani government but quickly evolved into protests against the Islamic Republic itself.

This year’s protests have moved the needle even further in the anti-regime direction. The crowds have adopted chants that include a mix of taunts against the supreme leader and even pro-monarchist sentiments. Their slogans are punctuated by the intermittent destruction of symbols of regime authority, including banks and government offices. Protesters have also attacked statues of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, and offices affiliated with his successor, Khamenei. In response, the Iranian government blocked access to the internet across most of the country. Without internet access, Iranians lost their main tools of organization (via apps like WhatsApp and Instagram) and of communication with the outside world. As access has gradually been restored to parts of the country, images, stories, and videos of the violence used against Iranian civilians have started to emerge. Numerous images and short videos of Basiji paramilitary forces firing into crowds from sniper positions, rushing into crowds while swinging truncheons from the backs of motorcycles, and beating protesters indiscriminately have been posted to social media. Iranians are sharing stories of friends and family missing or confirmed dead. Early estimates already suggest over 200 Iranians killed over the past week.

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