What was your first impression when these anti-government demonstrations erupted?
From May 2017 onwards, Iran has experienced a phase of quite frequent protests across the country, where they can be triggered by small things. From the government budget, as happened in 2017, to much bigger issues that affect millions of ordinary Iranians, like the fuel hikes that we had back in November, to then more devastating, tragic national events like this shooting of a passenger airline.
A lot of people, particularly in November, myself included, predicted that unless there are some systematic reforms in the way the country and the economy is managed, there are going to be quite frequent cycles of protest inside Iran, triggered from anything small to anything big.
These vigils very quickly turned into protests that then — I think even more quickly than the last two big rounds of protest inside the country — turned into slogans that were anti-establishment, targeting Iran’s supreme leader within hours of the protests starting.
Previously, it would take at least a couple days for the more radical slogans to emerge, but now there is no inhibition about going directly to what many inside the country are seeing as the source of the problem, which is the Iranian political establishment at large.
And how does that sit with the Iranian regime?
What I think will be more interesting to watch is how the security apparatus responds to the protesters if they do continue over a period of days or weeks. In November, it did culminate in a very brutal crackdown, which was a big shift from the way the state authorities responded to the protests in the country back in 2017 and 2018, where they were largely allowed to continue and allowed to more or less fizzle out.
In November, we saw reports of huge numbers of protesters killed and arrested. This time around, I think there has been some statement [from the top] to Iranian officials that they want a restrained response from the security forces.
What we’re starting to see at the moment is a number of high-profile arrests across the country. Some people have been released, including Robert Macaire, the British ambassador, who was involved in that momentary detention. It’s unclear if others have been or not. So we’ll have to see if security forces respond with a very heavy fist as they did back in November.
Also, I’d put in parentheses that one the biggest shifts we’re seeing in this round of protests following the shooting down of the plane is that an increasing number of supporters of the [regime] are coming out, accepting responsibility, accepting that mistakes were made, accepting that people would be allowed to protest and demonstrate their anger, and accepting that there was a total mismanagement that is unforgivable that has culminated in this event.
What might that mean for the political leadership in Iran?
Some have been saying that this is a watershed moment for the political leadership, that this should be a wake-up, that they need to now expand the political space in the country — to basically allow some breathing room for the general public.
All of this is happening as there are parliamentary elections scheduled in Iran next month. And, so far, we’re not seeing great indicators that the leadership in the country is actually expanding that political space, because we’ve had an initial review of candidates that are allowed to run, and several high-profile reformist figures have been disqualified from running.
There is still a space of time when they could appeal and maybe change that decision. But it’s a good indication that some of the more established defenders of the Islamic Republic are not seeing what’s happened as a wake-up call that they need to actually have a national dialogue process, that there needs to be greater involvement of opposing views, rather than restricting the space further.
But we’ll see.
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