Exclusive: Iran Protests Give Big ‘No’ to Both Turban and Military Cap

Exclusive: Iran Protests Give Big ‘No’ to Both Turban and Military Cap

Friday, 29 June, 2018 - 11:30
London - Asharq Al-Awsat
“Who is behind all this?” Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly asked on Wednesday when he received several judges in special audience.

The “all this” in his question referred to protests that led to the closure of Tehran’s Grand bazaar followed by similar shutdowns in at least 30 other cities.

However, the bazaar protests were not all that was there.

Apart from the Bazaaris, who had their own organization and pursued clear objectives mostly linked to the dire economic situation, there were other elements pursuing other strategies.

Some clandestine opposition activists, using the protests as cover, briefly came into the open to set fire to official cars, street dustbins, and, in at least five occasions, buildings suspected of belonging to security forces. They were also responsible for emptying a truckload of rubbish in front of the “Islamic Majlis” (parliament) building, and bringing in large quantities of pebbles, rocks and stones for people to throw at security units. Among them were elements clearly trained in street “hit-and-run” politics.

A third group, mostly belonging to the so-called intelligentsia also joined the protest and provided many of the slogans, catch phrases and limericks popular in all political demonstrations in Iran. They were largely responsible for the overtly political profile that the protests adopted in their third or fourth day. They also set up communication centers, spreading information, including thousands of video-documentaries through the social media to heighten the profile of the revolt.

More worrisome from Khamenei’s point of view was the presence of a large number of the “urban poor” who joined the protests as eddies pouring into a river. They had no recognizable leadership and no slogans of their own. They wished to indicate their unhappiness with a “Revolution” that had promised to end poverty in Iran but had ended up multiplying it.

At any rate, the “all this” that worried Khamenei evolved into a mass movement cutting across class, age, education, and other barriers- a truly popular uprising. It showed that if and when a large number of Iranians decide to really go for “the kill” against the regime, something that many experts believe they have not done yet, they would have the manpower, the method and the means needed for a serious challenge to the authorities.

What the surprise revolt lacked, however, was an overall leadership and a precise goal that could be summed up in one sentence. Many protesters simply looked for curbs on corruption, an end to economic crisis, a punishment of incompetence in high places and plans to relieve the pressure on the estimated 30 million Iranians who live below-the-poverty-line.

There is doubt that some protesters were sympathizers, or as their opponents might claim, hired hands of the more radical Khomeinist factions that believe President Hassan Rouhani and his “New York Boys” are a sort of Trojan Horse for the United States at least when ruled by the Democrats.

The most outspoken among the protesters, however, could be categorized as the “regime change” coalition, those who would settle for nothing less than the dissolution of the “Islamic Republic.”

Broadly speaking, the Iranian opposition could be divided into two big camps: those who want regime change and those who seek change of behavior.

The surprise announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Trump administration is seeking only behavior of change on a few specific issues has helped deepen that divide. Those exile opposition groups that have closely worked with the US and its regional allies, including Israel, for decades, have been forced to distance themselves from the regime change narrative, thus giving the regime added space in which to maneuver.

Thanks to its international connections, experience in campaigning and ability to raise funds, the exiled opposition is still slated to play a major role in any future national revolt. However, it is unlikely to be in the van if and when Iran moves towards genuine regime change. A series of recent conferences held in London, Hamburg and Washington DC ended in acrimony and chaos as exile groups fought each other over such issues as ethnic rights and the choice between monarchy and a republican system with classical right-left fissures apparent in the background.

Waiting in the wings are some members of the military in the ruling elite. Newspapers and websites controlled by various active or retired officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) harp on the claim that successive governments, headed by mullahs or civilians, have failed and that the military remains the only power capable of leading the nation out of the impasse created by 40 years of misrule and incompetence.

For example, Gen. Muhammad Hussein Baqeri, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, says his men are ready to “help the government in any difficult situation, to solve problems and remove hurdles.” The subtext is that the government itself, headed by a mullah or a civilian, is incapable of doing that.

Their senior officers, among them Gen. Qassem Soleimani who commands the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps, and the former IRGC chief, Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, have already embarked on a self-promotion drive that resembles the early phases of a presidential campaign.

One curious fact is that the clergy, who have been the face of the regime for four decades, are adopting a low profile. This may be because they are deeply divided with many, perhaps even a majority, anxious to distance the mosque from government to avoid a tsunami of anger that could sweep them all away.

Whatever happens next, analysts agree that the next “Savior” in Iran would be wearing neither a turban nor a military cap.

The Iranian protest movement is rich in tactical leadership with hundreds of trade unionists, association leaders, bazaar elders, feminist mascots, intellectuals and even religious scholars capable of spearheading uprisings in more than 200 cities, something never seen before in Iranian political history. What is lacking is an overarching leadership to transform that tactical advantage into a strategic one. However, necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes.

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