Is it a revolution? Can it succeed? Should we support it, and if so, how?
Surely this tumult is very different from the protests of 2009. It’s different in at least two ways, geographical and demographical.
Geographically, whereas the 2009 protests were mainly limited to Tehran, today’s phenomenon covers the whole country, from major cities to smaller towns and even rural villages. That’s significant, because those who do not believe in the prospects of an Iranian revolution invariably argue that opposition to the regime is restricted to the elites of the big cities, and that rural populations are pro-regime. It’s difficult to judge how many rural residents are protesting, but it’s a significant number. That’s new, and I believe it surprised both the regime and the leaders of the uprising.
The demographic difference is class: the 2009 demonstrators were Tehrani bourgeoisie (bazaaris, for example). Today’s masses are proletarians: workers, unemployed, failing farmers and the like. Notice that trade unionists are being arrested in Tehran, because the tyrants fear they are the real organizers of the uprising, and because workers and the unemployed are not as easy to intimidate as professors and businessmen.
Then there is ideology. Most accounts would have you believe that this whole thing started because people weren’t being paid, or were hungry. Have you heard anyone chanting “give us our money”? People do not risk their lives just to get their salaries or pensions paid. Protests of this sort are, and have long been, commonplace, but they did not set off a nation-wide conflagration. But the fires are now burning all over the place, and the fires are being set by people who want an end to the Islamic Republic. Just listen to them and watch them as they burn posters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Watch them as they burn down religious centers, schools, and living quarters for those in or entering the ranks of the clergy. No, Marie Antoinette, this is not about the price of bread, but about a regime that oppresses and steals from the Iranian people to enrich itself, and pay, arm, train and command Iranian and foreign fighters who serve the regime’s interests in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and numerous African countries, as well as in South America. And so the would-be revolutionaries in the streets of—what is it now?—31 cities yell at the security forces: “Don’t talk to us about Gaza, talk about us.” For them, the regime is something depraved and alien. Some of the protestors have lost relatives on foreign battlefields, and they don’t approve.
Which brings us to the present and pending street battles for the future of the country, and, in many important ways, the world.
The security forces’ most vicious component is the Basij, whose famously vicious ranks are largely drawn from the same proletarian neighborhoods as the revolutionaries. The Basij, like the rest of their countrymen, are not happy with the state of the country. They, too, are worried about paychecks. They, too, are fed up with the state of their world. And they must be terribly ambivalent when they are told to send their families into the streets to stop the demonstrations. We have all seen scenes of security people defecting to the revolutionary cause, and the revolutionaries are playing it smart, offering the thugs security and a warm embrace if they switch sides. Who will prevail? Watch carefully for signs of large-scale defections from the Basij and their mother organization, the Revolutionary Guards. If that starts to happen, the regime’s days are in single digits.
The regime is trying to undermine the legitimacy of the protests, and they are using a particularly ugly stratagem. They have released 3,000 of the most violent prisoners, and ordered them to infiltrate the protest; 1,500 of them are supposed to be in the front lines, and to assault the protestors head-on, helping the Basij and RGs. The other half are supposed to identify protesters, spread chaos in the crowds, and provoke violent action to justify a major clampdown.
Will it work? They have at least two other strings on their counterrevolutionary violin: the first, as we have seen, is to isolate the Iranians, deprive them of the words and images of support from the outside world, especially from the United States. That is certainly effective and they are doing it well. Second is a disinformation campaign, traces of which we can see even in our own media, aimed at scaring the more highly educated Iranians. Those are the targets of the “do you want Iran to turn into Syria” campaign. Finally, as always, even in periods of calm, they act to prevent crowds from gathering. They have closed all the schools in the country, from kindergartens through the universities. You cannot fault them for lack of ambition. They may yet win.
It may well be that the revolutionaries are too many for the regime, and too widely spread out. The regime has many instruments of repression and is certainly prepared to deploy them all. But they may not have enough. Twitter on Tuesday night carried an alleged text message said to have been sent to retired security people, urging them to come fight for the regime. If that is true, it bespeaks a real concern in the corridors of power that they need more fighters, that this thing is too big for them as presently constituted.
Meanwhile, what should Trump & Co be doing? They are doing the one big thing: speaking out in behalf of revolution in Iran. And they are doing it very well, in my view. But they must find a way to undo the regime’s censorship of digital space. I don’t know how to do that? Use military satellites? Send commandos to destroy the censors’ headquarters in central Tehran?
Finally, it is long past time to replace those currently running our own radio and television broadcasting operations, from Farda to Voice of America. And let them reach all the Iranians they can with words and images showing that we do indeed support freedom fighters in their hour of desperate need.