The Iranian regime’s response is anchored in three characteristics. Firstly, the modus operandi of the regime is based on using brute force to silence the demonstrators. This will more likely cause more people to become disaffected with the regime. Secondly, the regime is dodging responsibility and accountability by blaming foreign powers for the protests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement accusing “enemies” of provoking the protests. Finally, the regime is downplaying the power and significance of the protests.
Some scholars and policy analysts are making an analogy between the recent wave of protests and those that occurred previously, such as the Green Movement in 2009.
But it is important to point out that the character of the recent uprising was different from previous ones for several reasons.
First of all, people were not demanding limited reforms within the regime, rather they were demanding the clerical rulers step down. I was visiting Iran during the Green Movement, where people were protesting against the rigged election and chanting “where is my vote.”
Even in cities that are known to be conservative, the bedrock and stronghold of the ruling clerics, people of all walks of life took to the streets and were chanting for the downfall of the nation’s rulers.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
But the recent anger and frustration was much more powerful and deep. People were risking their lives by chanting, “Death to Khamenei” — a crime which carries the death penalty in Iran. People were also chanting, “Death to Rouhani”, “Shame on you Khamenei, step down from power”, “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to the Islamic Republic.”
Protesters were tearing down the banners of Iran’s Supreme leaders, Ruholla Khomeini and Khamenei.
The second element that distinguished these protests from others was the surge of protesters pointing to the Iranian regime’s vicious foreign policies. People were demanding the regime stops squandering the wealth of the nation on terrorist and militia groups, as well as other dictators. Chants were heard all over the nation, such as “Death to Hezbollah”, “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead.”
The third element was that these demonstrations had an economic aspect as well.
The Iranian people were chanting about how they were living like beggars.
Another element that made these recent protests so ground-breaking was the exceptional role played by women. In a country where women have very few rights, they were daring to stand up, despite the risks. In one case, a video posted online showed a woman standing in front of security forces and shouting “Death to Khamenei,” prompting other men and women to chant the same after her.
The fifth element was that, unlike the Green Movement protests, during which protesters were mainly from large urban cities like Tehran and were mostly young and middle or upper class, the recent protests were initiated by the working class, which sparked people from all different sectors of Iranian society to join in.
Then, people from all walks of life and of various ages, joined together as one voice. Even in cities that are known to be conservative, the bedrock and stronghold of the ruling clerics, people took to the streets and were demonstrating. The protests began in the conservative cities of Mashhad and Qum, which are home to mullahs, seminaries and an enormous amount of religious propaganda.
The final unique element was revealed in what the people were demanding from the regime’s leaders. Unlike during the Green Movement protests, people were not asking for moderates to replace the hardliners. Instead, they wanted the downfall of the whole clerical rule. The Iranian people were chanting “hardliners, moderates, the game is now over.”
In a nutshell, due to these reasons, the character of recent protests in Iran was unique and distinct in comparison to other uprisings that occurred in the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic. What the regime fears most is the power of these protests.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council.
He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business.