It is too early to say how long the current protest demonstrations in Iran will continue or whether they will succeed in changing the regime in Tehran or anything about it.
So far, all that can be said with any confidence is that at least 12 people have been killed in four days of the biggest uprising the country has seen since 2009, when over one million people poured into the streets to voice their outrage over rigged elections.
But these much smaller gatherings of tens of thousands, scattered in a number of Iranian cities, pose less of a threat to the powers that be. Presumably, that is why the crackdown has not matched the force or ferocity of the previous one.
Not only is the uprising on a smaller scale than in 2009, but it also appears to lack any coherent leadership. What began as a protest over economic grievances — in particular, a government that, since the lifting of some sanctions, has failed to direct the new cash inflow at improving conditions for the people — quickly turned into a more generalized uprising.
Once anger at the authorities was tapped, it overflowed. The slogans reportedly carried into the streets have included “Death to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei!” “Death to Hezbollah!” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, Our Life Only for Iran!” “We Will Die to Get Our Iran Back!” “Clerics Out of Our Country!”
The slogans do not lack clarity despite the absence of articulate reformist dissidents at the head. Social media and raw, bottled-up anger have provided substitutes, at least temporarily.
Given the facts on the ground, the Iranian government is holding back, biding their time, waiting for the storm surge to pass. If it doesn’t, they will not hesitate to take tougher measures. But why raise the stakes, and stoke further domestic resentment, to be hurled back at them with greater, regime-changing fury at a later time?
In the meantime, the people, amazingly, have not given up. They continue to risk their lives to speak out against a tyrannical regime that embitters their lives and imperils the entire region. No one can tell where it will lead.
So, uncertainty prevails. But one bright fact has shone forth: that President Donald Trump’s so-called “bellicosity” toward Iran has not galvanized popular support for the regime. His blunt rhetoric has not made things better for the ayatollahs, as The New York Times bureau chief in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink, recently opined:
“After years of cynicism, sneering or simply tuning out all things political, Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor … Mr. Trump and the Saudis& have helped the government achieve what years of repression could never accomplish: widespread public support for the hardline view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted.”
The current wave of demonstrations against not Mr. Trump but the Ayatollahs, Hezbollah and Hamas, belie such a thesis. These are not the well-orchestrated chants of “Death to the United States!” or “Death to Israel!” that we are used to. Somehow, the villains have been changed.
It is now clear that the regime in Tehran has not been aided and abetted by the supposedly mistaken policies of President Trump, as his critics would have it. The current protests are an indication that, if anything, the trend is in the opposite direction, and that dissatisfaction with the ruling clerics is as widespread as ever.
As another night of protests began on Monday, there were calls from various quarters for regime change.
One thing the West should not be overly optimistic about, though, is a change for the better in Iran’s nuclear policy.
A 2013 Zogby poll found that some two-thirds of Iranians believe their country has a right to pursue nuclear power, including nuclear weapons, like any other sovereign state with the capacity to do so. It was, they said, Iran’s right as a “great nation.” Furthermore, an overwhelming consensus — an astonishing 96 percent — said they felt the hardship incurred by Western sanctions on Iran was worth it as the price to be paid for having a nuclear program.
On the other hand, the Iranians also told the pollsters that the economy is the issue most on their minds. Only 6 percent of Iranians said the nuclear program was a priority concern.
In other words, despite the intense international debate over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, the average Iranian hasn’t thought about it very much.
So, if and when regime change comes, the average Iranian will have to rethink a great many things. There is reason to be hopeful that the assumptions currently held about being a nuclear power will be among the issues that will undergo a change as well. Time will tell.