As they staged protests in 80 cities over the last two weeks, Iranians made clear they don’t support the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his quest for Iranian regional dominance nor the country’s support for terrorists such as Hamas on Israel’s southern border.
What began as protests over rising economic hardships by the young and working class in this country of 80 million quickly morphed into calls for Iran to withdraw financial aid and military assistance in conflict areas. There was even a call for regime change. Among the slogans protestors chanted: “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life (only) for Iran,” “Leave Syria. Think about us” and “All these brigades have come out to the street; they’ve come out against the leader.”
Meanwhile, Khamenei last week blamed outside “enemies” for the unrest. On Tuesday, he blamed “Americans and Zionists.”
Observers consider it unlikely that the regime will knuckle under to the protestors’ demands.
Mohsen Sazegara, a former deputy minister of Iran in the 1980s, told The Jewish Week that half of the country’s gross domestic products are controlled by the supreme leader and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps.
He said the regime has “so much money invested” in funding Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and in its war in Syria — where it has been helping to prop up the dictatorial regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad — that it would never comply with protestors’ demands to end all foreign exploits.
Sazegara noted that Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, said Iran “has mobilized and trained 200,000 [soldiers] in the region; there are 50,000 in Lebanon alone.”
Sazegara added that he agrees with protestors who are saying “Iran first and don’t spend money on other countries.” But he said the Iranian regime will not acquiesce to their demands because “the people will become more aggressive if they believe they can change the policies of the regime. … The policy of Khamenei is to not take a step back because the people will only ask for more.”
Iran has spent a massive amount of money in its overseas ventures, noted Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center. She said the regime took the $100 billion of Iranian assets that were unfrozen when it signed the nuclear agreement — as well as additional revenue earned after the agreement lifted sanctions Jan. 16, 2016, on Iranian oil exports — and plowed it into assisting overseas terrorists and its war efforts.
As a result, the improved economy that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had promised his people never materialized.
Although he has portrayed himself as a moderate compared with the hardline Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, Bryen said Rouhani is “as much a Shiite revolutionary as Khamenei or anybody else. In Iran, you can’t rise to that level unless you are a part of the religious cadre … The regime wants to stay in power and their goal is to spread revolution.”
Although the Iranian regime claims the street demonstrations that began Dec. 28 have ended, Bryen said late Monday that she had received “more video this afternoon showing today’s demonstration.”
Despite the protests, Iran continues trying to smuggle game-changing weapons to Hezbollah. A weapons depot near Damascus was bombed Tuesday by fighter planes presumably from Israel. Without acknowledging that they were Israeli planes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel continues to reserve the right to keep such weapons out of Hezbollah’s hands.
Bryen noted that Israel is also insisting that it will destroy any Iranian facilities in Syria that are within 25 miles of the Syrian-Israeli border.
Social media is believed to have helped spread the uprising across the country. But Iran has now placed restrictions on the Internet to derail the protests, blocking Iran’s most popular social media app, Telegram.
The protests, according to David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are notable because they are not coming from “liberals in Tehran but from 80 different sites, and they do not seem to have a leader or lend themselves to a situation where if they torture someone the whole thing will fall apart.”
“It potentially represents a new dimension that could strengthen Rouhani against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” Makovsky said.
“But it is too soon to say these demonstrations will bring an end to Iran’s theocracy,” he added. “There does not seem to be an immediate threat [to the regime], but … we do not know enough to say [the regime] has to do ‘X.’ The fact that the Iranian people are mindful of the costs of [Iran’s] policies is a good thing, [as is] the fact that so many Iranians are communicating with each other on social media — it has become a force in the country.”
Bryen said that should the protests continue, she is convinced the regime will “try to crush it” as it did when millions took to the streets in Tehran in what became known as the Green Revolution in 2009 to protest a rigged election that saw then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being reelected. At the time, the Obama administration did nothing to support the protestors. The Trump administration, however, has expressed its support of the current protest even though European countries have remained largely mute.
“The Germans have been giving aid and comfort to the Iranian regime,” Bryen said, adding that the Germans along with the French are “chasing [Iranian] contracts.”
What also makes the current protest different from that of 2009 is the fact the current protestors are “not talking about changing policy, they want to get rid of the whole system, which is so unprecedented,” according to Brenda Shaffer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies.
Among the chants heard on the streets was “Death to Rouhani.” Although the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps was called in to crush the 2009 protests, it has not been called upon this time. Instead, local police are being used as well as the IRGC’s volunteer motorcycle-riding Basij force.
“The power of this rebellion is that it is in the provinces, the small towns,” Shaffer said. “That presents a problem for the government — putting out fires in so many areas and having to use local security forces who are not so willing to shoot their neighbors. In 2009, the IRGC did not know the people in Tehran.”
Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said the current protest “cuts across different economic strata and different religions — it is hard to bill this as an elite protest.”
The protests are understandable, Berman said, because Iranians have watched as their country “tries to create a new empire across the Mediterranean coast in Lebanon while their local conditions are getting worse and worse.”
Staying out of the protest is Iran’s Jewish community, which is now said to number fewer than 10,000, according to Sam Kermanian, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, he pointed out that just days before the protests began, two synagogues in the Iranian city of Shiraz were vandalized and “a number of Torah scrolls were desecrated and prayer books torn and thrown in the toilet.”
He and others said they are convinced the vandalism had nothing to do with the protests and coincidentally happened the same week.
Asked if Iranian Jews would like to see regime change, Kermanian replied: “Like any other Jewish community there are diverse opinions. Some just want stability in the country — like the devil you know. Others believe Iran can do better.”