by A. Pe’er, Hamodia’s military correspondent
Crowds of protesters went wild in Iran in recent weeks, leading many to believe that a change in government was near. But, as of now, it appears that a real revolution is still very far away. Masses of unemployed and underprivileged individuals, hard hit by the recent price hikes and subsidy removals, took to the streets to express their anger, hurt and despair. They are particularly infuriated that the government had spent “the people’s” money in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But the outburst does not seem to be leading toward a government overthrow; rather, it seems like a momentary release of steam.
Outside the Shandiz Housing Project offices in Mashhad, Iran, Rani Shasrakan fainted and collapsed. He had been saving money, penny by penny, from his arduous day job, hoping one day to be able to acquire an apartment of his own. He deposited his hard-earned money with the directors of the Shandiz company, who had announced plans to build a giant new neighborhood in Mashhad. His was one of 160,000 Iranian families who had built their entire future on the company and the new neighborhood.
No one had the slightest doubt that the neighborhood would be built. After all, this was a project headed by distinguished Iranian figures, well connected to the central government that issued permission to build.
But rumors began to leak that the company’s funds had disappeared, stolen by company executives who then disappeared. Some were reported to have fled abroad.
When Shasrakan arrived at the company offices in downtown Mashhad, he realized there was trouble. Hundreds of other people were already there, anxious to find out what was happening with their money and whether the huge project would, in fact, be built. The gates were locked, but the office lights were on upstairs. Only after an hour of shouting by the mob did a Shandiz clerk come out to inform them that yes, the company was in trouble; it hoped to recover, but could not know how long it would take.
This was the first official affirmation of corruption within the company, and it set off an earthquake of protests.
When others of the 160,000 apartment buyers heard that their money had disappeared, they flocked to downtown Mashhad, roaring, “Crooks, return the money!” The charges were quickly directed against the Iranian government, with accusations that officials had distributed franchises and favors to close associates, who then stole the citizens’ money.
The Shandiz housing project fraud is just one of a series of major scams in Iran in recent years. Common to all of them is that the authorities offer no aid to ordinary citizens who are hit; instead, help is offered to cronies of government officials! It has happened in the construction business, in banks that went bankrupt and caused huge losses to investors, and in companies that sold shares and were then discovered to have nothing backing the worthless paper that the Iranian stock exchange sold on their behalf.
Though the protests broke out in Mashhad, they could easily have erupted anywhere else in Iran. For years, the country has been undergoing a genuine crisis, rooted in the Islamic revolution that swept the government 40 years ago, bringing religious rules and laws that most of the civilian population does not want.
At the same time, the Iranian government’s clashes with the Sunni nations of the Persian Gulf have led to a stunning drop in the critical tourism industry. The towering mosques of Mashhad, for instance, used to bring in 8 million tourists a year — a number that has now plummeted to less than 1 million. Many hotels have gone bankrupt, as have stores and shopping centers catering largely to tourists, and tens of thousands of people have joined the ranks of the unemployed.
Many of the newly impoverished have joined the ranks of street beggars, or petty thieves and other criminals. Crime has skyrocketed throughout the country. The populace is furious at the government for having removed subsidies on basic foodstuffs, thereby leading to price hikes, and for spending money to support foreign regimes. Billboards scream: “The people are scrambling for handouts, and you waste our money in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen!” Despair and pain are rampant.
However, the anger seems to be under control, and overthrowing the regime does not seem imminent. Government forces were instructed not to employ their full strength to put down the protests, but, rather, to allow the protesters to “let off steam.”
An internal Israeli intelligence report, prepared at the onset of the protests, was leaked to the media. It determined that the Iranian protests weaken the regime, erode its legitimacy, and could even threaten its stability, though not necessarily in the short-term. The report states that the Tehran government was taken by surprise by the uprising and was certainly not prepared for it. The demonstrations began as an economic issue, but quickly took on a violent political tone, with accusations of wasteful government spending in foreign countries.
The Israeli report stated that the escalation of the protests, including the use of firearms leading to deaths, indicates that Iranian citizens are no longer afraid. However, neither are they brazen enough to ignore what happened to the citizens of Syria, Libya and Yemen. They fear that the chaos that broke apart Syria and caused such suffering to the average citizen there could also reach Iran. They can therefore be expected to protest and make their voices heard, but not to actually take to the barricades in order to bring about a real coup.
Nearly nine years ago, in the summer of 2009, huge demonstrations were held in Iran against the falsification of the results of the presidential elections. The demonstrators were brutally suppressed until, within a month, they simply disappeared from the streets. They numbered millions in one city, Tehran. But this time was very different: Nowhere near a million people took part; only a few hundred here and a few thousand there. But the protests occurred in 100 cities and towns all over Iran.
Much of the world hoped that the protests would snowball and truly threaten the regime, but this did not happen. This is why the authorities did not rush to use force to repress them. The strategy was to let the public have its say, and to bring in the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards only afterward, if necessary. It was not necessary.
Many in Israel, and around the world, wanted the riots to bring down the government. But as of now, it appears that they merely “wounded” the regime, and not seriously; the government should be able to bring things back under control.
The riots and demonstrations had no leader or uniform message, and no specific group was organized beforehand to prepare to take power. The demonstrators emphasized different demands at each locale. In one the demand was to restore subsidies for basic foods; in another the call was for an end to funding Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen; and in a third place the protesters demanded that Iran leave Syria. A common thread was that the Iranian government should stop investing billions in matters that provide no benefit to Iran’s hungry citizens.
The demonstrations broke out in Iran at a very bad time for the government — precisely when it was in the midst of talks regarding increased investment in Syria, and just as senior members of Hamas from the Gaza Strip were in Tehran requesting increased Iranian support for their organization. It was just then that the public came out en masse to protest and wave such signs as “Invest in us and not in Gaza terror!”
The protest demonstrations revived public criticism of the regime’s huge investments outside the country. Thousands of Iranians protested against the government policy that, they claim, puts support for the Syrian regime and the “resistance front” before solutions to the economic crisis faced by the average Iranian citizen. The protesters chanted slogans against Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, and pictures of him and of the Revolutionary Guards’ leader Qasem Soleimani were set afire.
The calls against Iranian involvement in other countries and in terrorism are not new, but recently publicized numbers and statistics show how much money has truly been wasted. It was reported, for instance, that the Assad regime in Syria received $4.6 billion(!) in credit from Iran — and this does not include the cost of weapons shipments and the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of military advisors dispatched westward to help out Assad. And what about the 20,000 Shiite soldiers recruited throughout the world and thrown into the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, and the same number of Shiite advisors and warriors sent to fight in Iraq? The salary of each one of these “volunteers” is $300 a month, not including living expenses such as housing, food, clothing and medical costs.
And there’s more: Iran is training thousands of Shiite rebels to act in the future in and against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Iran has also invested in Hezbollah between $700 million and $900 million every year of late, not including the provision and delivery of weapons to Lebanese terrorists. Another beneficiary is Islamic Jihad in Gaza, to the tune of $70 million, in addition to $50 million to Hamas there. No one knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars Iran has paid out for its war in Yemen. All this is before even beginning to talk about the fortunes of money being thrown into Iran’s nuclear and ballistic rockets programs.
Why did the protests erupt now, and not two or three years ago? The truth is that the Iranian public had hopes for the Iran-U.S. negotiations regarding the removal of American sanctions. This would bring much money back home, it was felt, and foreign investors, too, would fill the national coffers, from which money would then trickle down to the average citizen.
But this is far from what actually happened. The sanctions were removed, frozen Iranian accounts were thawed and their monies returned to Iran — but not a cent reached the citizens. Even worse: The government removed or reduced some of its food subsidies, as well as grants to the poor. Precisely when the average Iranian felt that his dreams would finally come true, the opposite occurred, and whatever money he had in his pocket dropped in value because of rampant inflation and the rise in food prices.
The signs that most disconcert the Iranian authorities are those that read, “The nation sacrificed in the army, now let the army sacrifice for the nation.” This is an indirect but clear call for the security forces to rise up and rebel. This was, in fact, the motto that led millions of Iranians to defy the Shah and topple his regime nearly 40 years ago. But again, this particular uprising is not yet gaining momentum — though one can never know what spark will ignite it again.
And so, it is likely that the protests do not existentially threaten the Iranian regime, and they can be expected to pass into history without leaving much of an impression, just as previous protest waves have come and gone. But no one can ignore the powerful and sincere desire of the Iranian public for a fundamental change in their country.
Many Iranians were thrilled with the religious revolution that accompanied the overthrow of the Shah. Top Islamic clerics, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, took over the reins of government with determination and strength. It was even hoped that the Shiite Islamic revolution would spread to the entire world. At the same time, the ever-developing nuclear project and increasing Iranian influence throughout the Middle East added to the public’s pride and confidence.
But now, 40 years later, the Iranians have a very different perspective. They no longer want their government to spend money wastefully around the world when they themselves can barely scrape by on what they have. Iran’s economy is truly in difficult straits. Nearly 13 percent of the total working-age public is unemployed. Even more significant and worrisome is that among the young, the unemployed number 40 percent — meaning that nearly every other young Iranian has no work, including many college graduates.
The banks suffer from problems of liquidity. While the international sanctions have been eased, and deposits of tens of billions of dollars around the world have begun to return to Iran, this money has not brought relief for the day-to-day lives of the people. This is because the Iranian treasury has not transferred the money to the citizens. Instead, the public is sent to the banks to take loans, but the banks do not have enough money for them — because the international bodies refuse to lend to the Iranian banks, and neither have the investors yet begun to return. No one is particularly anxious to borrow in any event, given the high interest rates alongside inflation that only increases each month.
At the same time, Iran’s international business is not doing well at all. It was hoped that after the nuclear agreement that Tehran signed with the United States under President Obama, countries would resume trading with Iran — but this has not happened. Even worse for Iran, when President Trump assumed office and began threatening to renew the sanctions, the world’s willingness to trade and invest in Iran took yet another downturn — for what serious international company would be willing to enter into a deal in the shadow of possible sanctions?
The Revolutionary Guards, responsible for Iran’s foreign activities, have long feared the day when they would be blamed for “wasting” huge sums in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. They therefore prepared a cover story over the past few years. They organized themselves into commercial companies, as if they were selling various services and thus receiving indirect payments on investments. For example, they “sold” oil to Syria — oil that, in any event, the rest of the world would not buy because of the sanctions — and in exchange, Damascus promised to allow a parallel Guards company to mine phosphates in Syria and use them in Iran.
The Iranians also established companies that sought to acquire territory inside Syria, in return for what Iran supplied to Syria. The idea was to establish Iranian factories there, ostensibly to be nearer the Mediterranean Sea. However, their real purpose was to build weapons factories. They also thought that via the same framework they could gain some shoreline areas in Syria for naval and air bases. But everything was really only on paper, and the Iranians have not yet seen a penny from all their efforts. They did not receive the bases, and whatever they did receive was damaged by aerial attacks, attributed to Israel by the international media.
President Rouhani was smart enough to reduce inflation rates in his country, from 35 percent four years ago, to 9 percent in the past year. In addition, exports have grown nicely, and trade agreements have been signed with Russia, China, Germany and Pakistan — potentially bringing in tens of billions of dollars. But it has not happened yet, and Iran’s economy continues to limp weakly along.
The protests, then, can be summed up by the complaints of the average man on the street against the president: “We pinned our hopes on Rouhani to represent us and take care of us, to improve the economy, to reduce unemployment, prevent the subsidy slashes, stop the baseless arrests especially among reform-minded students, appoint more reformers to sensitive positions — but he has done nothing.”
The delicate situation in Iran is of grave concern to the country’s leadership, which understands that this is more than just a regular protest. Masses of citizens from all over the country have gotten together to express their pain and suffering to both their president and their “Supreme Leader.”
This does not mean that the regime of the Ayatollahs is close to collapse. For one thing, there are not enough rebels. And this itself could be a sign that, in fact, the demonstrators don’t really want the government to fall. They want improvements, and they want government aid. But they also fear the cruel military that could easily repress the uprising with many deaths. But still and all, Iran’s leaders know not to make light of this phenomenon, which could easily be reignited at a moment’s notice.
The fact that the regime took action to block social media protest messages proves that it fears the future. And when it called up hundreds of Revolutionary Guards from Syria and elsewhere, including high-ranking officers, this was a clear sign that the government was considering the possibility that the protests would escalate.
Finally, we cannot ignore the Jewish and Israeli aspects of this story. Some 9,000 Jews currently live in Iran, and they were not pleased to hear this past week that Israel and the United States are being blamed for motivating the protests. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, just a short time after an Iranian announcement to that effect, made his own declaration that charges of that nature were ridiculous. He emphasized that Israel has and had nothing to do with what was going on in Iran. The Iranians, of course, know that PM Netanyahu is right, but Israel continues to be their most convenient scapegoat — and there will always be some people who believe the lies.
The danger is that some gullible Iranian, believing the accusations against Israel, might actually pick up a gun or knife and try to attack Jews living in Iran. This is why the Jews are staying away as if from fire from every site of possible protests. They are also not willing to be interviewed or even to speak aloud about what is going on. Their situation is not simple these days.
Meanwhile, Yerushalayim is also trying to maintain silence regarding Iran. Aside from the above declaration by PM Netanyahu, the issue has been barely addressed. Israel, of course, wishes for major changes in Iran, even as it knows that not all Iranians agree with the protesters; many of them hold Islamic opinions and still support the revolution.
It is quite clear that the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Obama administration were effective and made their mark on the Iranian economy. Every Iranian is now afraid of a return to those days, and President Trump’s remarks that the withdrawal of the sanctions and the release of the frozen Iranian funds were acts of stupidity were not very encouraging.
And so, the situation of both the Iranian leadership and the rebels is not great. Iran is a giant country, and huge numbers of people willing to take on the security forces head-on would be necessary for a real coup. But because of those who did exactly that 10 years ago, and came out with nothing to show for it other than violence and failure, only small numbers of people are willing to try it again.