In a statement on January 3rd Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards declared the “sedition” over.
The preceding week’s protests, in which at least 42,000 Iranians took to the streets, were losing steam. With 22 protesters dead and over 1,000 arrested and imprisoned by government forces, the peaceful protests were replaced by a wave of pro-government rallies which culminated on Friday morning, January 5th.
The rallies saw tens of thousands of loyal Iranians demonstrating on behalf of the regime, declaring their allegiance to the Ayatollah and condemning the United States and Israel as the instigators of the protests.
Prominent cleric Ahmad Khatami, who often leads Friday prayer at the Grand Mosalla said, “Those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt with based on Islamic clemency." Khatami is often asked to preach in turbulent times, due to his public persona as a moderate and reformer. He added, “religious leaders are on the side of the downtrodden and those who have problems making ends meet. I urge you not to turn this into partisan politics. People want freedom. They want their voice to be heard."
His veneer of ‘clemency’ does little to mask the reality that the peaceful protests were violently suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite military unit, who remain deployed throughout the country to quell unrest.
Khatami is a former President of Iran who, though often critical of the regime of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, has remained loyal to the Islamic Republic and should be considered a formal mouthpiece of the government.
There is no doubt that the government is going to chalk the protests up to tensions between Islam and the West, using the narrative to stoke the fire of an expansionist and Islamist agenda which they have been successfully pursuing in the region since the outbreak of war in Syria. According to CNN, there has been no evidence that Washington had any involvement.
Concurrent with the rallies on Friday morning, U.N. special rapporteurs – voluntary advisors to the assembly – issued a statement which condemned the Iranian regime’s actions towards the protesters. In particular, they highlighted violence, limitation of human rights and the regime’s purported blocking of the internet and social media as their main areas of concern. A meeting of the Security Council, requested by the U.S. is to follow in the afternoon, the goal of which is still uncertain, although intervention is not anticipated.
The root of the protests is somewhat difficult to nail down. A contributing factor is the perception that Iran is spending too much money fighting abroad and not enough on the welfare of its own citizens. A shout of “No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives for Iran” rang out at one of the first protests. This sentiment appears to come in the wake of the 2018 national budget which saw, among other expenditures, an increase in funding of the Revolutionary Guards to $8 billion, over two-thirds of total defense spending.
Another difficult pill to swallow for working Iranians is the government’s inability to reduce the cost of basic amenities and create jobs in the wake of sanctions being lifted in 2016. An attendee at the rally at the Grand Mosalla this morning, who would only identify himself a Rouallah told CNN, “I don't think the solution is regime change, I think the solution is to bring bread to the people. I think there are a lot of solutions for that and absolutely, we have to be thinking of them."
However, the regime has done an excellent job of deflecting these concerns towards catch-alls like American intervention or ineptitude at lower levels of government. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has criticized President Hassan Rouhani for the economic stagnation.
Belying all these factors is an overextended Iranian military, which after years of involvement in clashes throughout the region has been characterized by Ali Nazira of Rand Corp. as “On the surface they seem to be doing pretty well and winning these conflicts, but they’re spending money they don’t have.” While the regime appears stable, their ascendancy to dominance in the politics of the Middle East is now somewhat in question.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics said in an interview with the Washington Post, “Before the protests, you had this dominant narrative that Iran is unstoppable, Iran is undefeatable, Iran is as solid as a rock. The protests have undermined the posture of the Islamic Republic in the region, as the unrivaled superpower. Thousands of protesters have exposed a major rupture in Iranian society, not just between reformists and ultraconservatives but between a critical segment of Iranian public opinion and the leadership. This is really why this particular moment matters a great deal.”
While this moment may matter a great deal, it seems for now that the Iranian government has maintained and will continue to maintain its authority through less than desirable means; that the protests may have been so much sound and fury. The government has expressed a willingness to use violence and oppression to break up protests, the consequences of which is still uncertain. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, while addressing the U.N. said, “The world has witnessed the horrors that have taken place in Syria, that began with a murderous regime denying its people's right to peacefully protest. We must not let that happen in Iran."