The protests in Iran are the result of a frustrated population, whose purchasing power has fallen by 15 percent over the past 10 years. The citizens of the Islamic Republic have taken to the streets to complain about the high cost of living, the unemployment, the inflation, the corruption, the lack of transparency by public institutions and the mismanagement of public affairs.
However, the events of recent days are reminding Iranian actor Babak Karimi of “the Arab Spring, which later proved to be nothing but maneuvers for regime change under the cover of an internal revolt, and I would not want these people to be mere extras and a cover for maneuvers coming from somewhere else.” According to Karimi, “the simultaneous nature of the protests in several cities, and especially the slogans, suggest that someone is directing all of this behind the scenes, but no one knows who!” After all, in recent months, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an adviser to President Trump, has repeatedly called for an American intervention in support of Iranian internal dissent.
The opinion that American, Israeli and Saudi intelligence have a hand in the protests is also shared by Jamileh Kadivar, a former deputy in the reformist legislature and a leading member of the opposition Green Movement of 2009. We spoke with her by phone in London, where she lives in exile with her husband Ataollah Mohajerani, minister of culture under the reformist president Muhammad Khatami. Kadivar notes that “on the first day, the slogans of the demonstrators in the holy city of Mashad were targeting President Rouhani,” who had proposed price increases for electricity, natural gas and gasoline starting from March 21. “But by the second day, the slogans had already taken on a more political connotation, which gives the impression that others, perhaps from abroad, have stimulated and provoked further protests in other cities beyond Mashad.”
The hypothesis that “foreign agents” are stoking the protests, which started out as spontaneous, was also proposed by the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who, in his speech on Sunday night, called out his counterpart, Donald Trump, for having previously described Iran as a country of “terrorists,” while now he is expressing solidarity with the Iranian people. It is certain, Rouhani said, that “the interests of the citizens of the Islamic Republic are not the same as those of the U.S. president.”
Actually, the open and unambiguous support given to them by someone like Trump can only have a negative impact on those who are protesting, because it gives the police and the army a pretext for a harsh response. The four people arrested in recent days risk being charged with sedition, which carries heavy penalties.
The reason Trump spoke out explicitly in favor of the protesters was perhaps to prevent any reproach for not taking a position, as happened during the protests of 2009, when Barack Obama was told that he had missed a golden opportunity to overthrow the Iranian regime.
In any case, it is not to the advantage of the United States or of Europe to destabilize Iran, because Tehran is the natural bulwark against ISIS. If the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guard had not deployed ground forces in Iraq and Syria, ISIS could have undergone a great expansion in the region. And yet, despite the converging interests of the West and Iran against the advance of ISIS, the U.S. president has done everything he could to embarrass Iranian President Rouhani. In mid-October, Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal, spreading great uncertainty among Western investors looking for opportunities on the Iranian market, already doubtful since the sanctions by the U.S. Treasury against Iran have never been lifted.
The lack of foreign investment in particular has put the Rouhani government on the spot, giving an opportunity to the Iranian conservative right to criticize him for giving in to Western pressure in July 2015 and signing the nuclear deal. In Sunday night’s speech, Rohani tried to distance himself from the hawks in Tehran and their repressive machinery, saying that the Iranians have the right to protest against the difficult economic situation, the corruption and the lack of transparency. The institutions need to leave space for criticism, he said, but the demonstrations must not degenerate into the violence and destruction of public property that we have seen.
Who benefits from the crisis of the Islamic Republic? Certainly not Europe, not least because Iran is an important partner to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: In recent decades, millions of desperate people have come to the Islamic Republic, mostly from neighboring Afghanistan. What is certain is that the Iranian crisis is playing right into the hands of Israel, whose long-term goal is a Middle East fragmented into nation-states on an ethnic and confessional basis, too small to pose any threat to the Jewish state.