When the Iranian military admitted on Saturday that it had accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, the Iranians began to take the Ukraine Airlines 752 flight, which killed all 176 mainly Iranian passengers and crew members, shocked, sad and outraged. At least temporarily, they overshadowed their anger at the United States after they killed the Quds Force general, Qassem Soleimani, in an airstrike earlier this month.
Now, on the sixth day of the protest, demonstrators condemn the murders and criticize the government behind them. Some call for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Videos on social media show Iranians burning pictures of Khamenei and chanting slogans like, “They lied when they told us it was America – our enemy is right here.” Eyewitnesses claim that government militias fire live ammunition at protesters ,
These recent protests are not the first time that Iranians have taken to the streets in recent months. The country’s domestic policy has been volatile in recent years, particularly under President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” regime for military violence and extreme sanctions. In November, tens of thousands of Iranians hosted spontaneous rallies after a surprising rise in gas prices, angry with a government that was often invested in Middle East proxy wars as corrupt, incompetent, and at the expense of the wellbeing of its citizens.
The uprisings are the result of an “accumulation of crises” in Iran, says Peyman Jafari, researcher and historian at Princeton University’s Center for Iranian Gulf Research. However, major political change will only occur if students, workers and bourgeois professionals who are fed up with economic struggle and political repression unify their protests and demands.
To learn more about the rationale behind the rallies and where they might lead, Mother Jones spoke extensively with Jafari, who deals with Iran’s history, social movements, and politics.
Could you provide background information on the massive Iranian protests in November and December and relate them to current developments?
The November demonstrations were triggered by a socio-economic problem: the rise in the price of fuel. The middle class understood these protests, but did not really join them. This time, of course, we had the plane crash. And I think it brought two Islamic Republic crises together: what I call the legitimacy crisis, because of the lie – it wasn’t just the plane crashing, but also that the government didn’t tell the truth for three days that it was widening Demand for transparency, for democracy sparked.
The other crisis associated with this event is the skills crisis: these formidable complaints that the government cannot protect its citizens, provide public services, security, etc. The shooting down of the plane brought this to the fore – this accidentally cost the lives of more than 170 people. So that was a big problem. This time the constituency is more middle class, more students.
In general there has been an increase in crises in Iran. The crises of competence, legitimacy, the socio-economic crisis. The current establishment has turned away from the promises of social justice and equality and has introduced a more neo-liberal policy since the 1990s. Now we see flexibility on the job market, many precarious jobs and supplies. Wages are generally low. Many strikes are about unpaid wages or low wages. And then we have an environmental crisis, especially in southern Iran, with drought and so on.
All of these crises are converging and the demands affect both the lower and middle classes, whose income has declined sharply. So there is a possibility that these [different] protests will converge, but this will not happen automatically. What you need are people, organizations, unions, NGOs, activist networks who can make these connections and formulate such requirements.
Was there any overlap between Iranians who protested the Soleimani murder and people who protested the plane attack or the increase in gasoline prices?
Some people have commented that these protests mean that the Iranians did not agree on the killing of the Soleimani. However, it is important to emphasize that Iran is a large country and not monolithic. These can be groups that exist in parallel. In addition, the same person can be against the assassination of Soleimani and against corruption and authoritarianism in Iran. I think the assassination of Soleimani has created a nationalism that is still very strong in Iran. These things can really exist at the same time.
There is a lot of Iran-related disinformation on social media, especially on Twitter, Telegram and Instagram, where only a few followers are registered Sometimes share non-verifiable information about demonstrations and practices. How concerned should we be about disinformation if we try to understand these protests?
Disinformation is being sent out by the Iranian government and the US government, which is also organizing a disinformation campaign. They organized these bots from very small but rich external groups such as the MKO [an armed opposition group supported by the United States] and royalists who form an echo chamber.
Trump bragged that his tweet in Persian was the most retweeted tweet in Persian. But much of this retweeting happens through these bots and through these online activist cyber armies like the MKO. Your activism is now basically twittering. They have these halls of aging activists who sit behind computers all day and send tweets. [On Saturday, Trump released his first Farsi tweet: “To the brave and suffering people in Iran: I’ve been with you since the beginning of my presidency and my government will continue to work with you. We are closely following your protests. Your courage is inspiring . ”]
This is definitely part of reality, but not all of reality. There are other Iranians on Twitter, on social media, both outside and inside Iran, who are very active and take positions. You shouldn’t dismiss them as real. There are many real activities.
Are social media distortions a big problem in Iran, especially for demonstrators?
No in Iran. At this point in time, people in Iran know where everything is going on. When Trump tweeted in Persian, the reaction of many Iranians was simple: “Shut up. You have issued a travel ban. You have targeted our cultural sites. You have sanctioned us. “People are aware of that.
There is of course the problem of so-called false news: which demonstrations are real, what are speculations about shooting at demonstrations? But this problem is really common. In my opinion, most people are aware and know how to work around this.
Much has been reported in the U.S. about the video of protesting students from Shahid Beheshti University, a well-known Iranian university that was careful not to run on U.S. and Israeli flags painted on the ground for propaganda purposes. What do you think this clip tells us?
People made a lot of it, but it’s not new. It has happened in recent years, but it is now politicized. My interpretation is that the students did this because they basically wanted to give the Iranian authorities a middle finger, because this [the trampling of the flags] is imposed on them.
However, this does not mean that they are blind to Israel or American foreign policy. Many of these students are very critical of what is happening in Israel or what is happening with economic sanctions. This university is actually sanctioned by the USA! The students could not travel to the United States to study. But I think the point is that they refuse to do it because the government and local authorities are forcing them to do so.
What about the tearing or burning of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s photographs that took place during the November protests and also this week?
We also saw it at the 2009 protests. In large parts of society, the Supreme Leader is increasingly criticized for ultimately being the person responsible for what is happening. He’s responsible for the good things, but doesn’t want to be held responsible for what’s going on now. This is a sign that people are demanding accountability from the government’s leading figure. But here, too, Iran is a country with over 80 million inhabitants. This has been done more and more often, but of course not by everyone.
Trump and the White House have tried to get involved on Twitter and elsewhere these protests. What consequences could this have for demonstrators in Iran?
I think it was actually totally counterproductive. First, it strengthens the authoritarian character of the Islamic Republic because it gives the Revolutionary Guards more power. It triggers and hears the followers of the Islamic Republic because they feel threatened and believe that anyone who opposes them is an agent of the United States. After the assassination of Soleimani, we saw the Revolutionary Guards recruiting directly from among the young people to draw new blood. If protests reappear, the Iranian government will increasingly suppress and militarize them.
The second thing is that US civil society sanctions in Iran cut off oxygen. I think strikes that can really affect the government are much more effective than demonstrations. But many people will be more tempted to sit on the fence and not join the movement because they are afraid of the [economic] consequences.
So no, I don’t think Trump should appreciate the events. Even if the regime collapses due to this “maximum pressure”, it will not necessarily lead to a democratic result under the current conditions. It could mean more chaos, civil war and the collapse of Iranian civil society. Even if economic sanctions [against Iran] do what they did against Iraq in the 1990s and destroy the social fabric, people will resort to family ties, tribal ties, religious sects, and other groups rather than institutions like unions and associations and so on. When the conditions militarize, we really see that space shrinks for these types of organizations.
At least two prominent Iranian news anchors have resigned from the plane crashes in recent days. Tehran’s most important association of journalists published a statement that said in part: “What is currently endangering this society is not only missiles or military attacks, but also a lack of free media.” What role did this type of public resistance play?
I think it’s important. Basically, this statement said that, as journalists, we have not been telling the truth in the past few days, that this is outrageous, and that we should ignore the restrictions set out in the media and do our job as journalists. I see this as a sign of the performance of institutions in civil society: associations of journalists, teachers, lawyers, especially in the public sector. You demand accountability.
What do you think Westerners generally don’t understand about these demonstrations?
We should pay attention to simplified pictures. Every time there are protests or demonstrations, there are voices saying that the regime is collapsing. I think the state’s social base has shrunk considerably since the 1990s, and that’s a real trend. But we are not on the brink of a collapsing regime. It will take a while.
We also do not know what the transformation will look like, whether it is internal changes and developments or a complete breakdown through mass protests and a revolutionary movement.
It is one thing. The other is that the people of Iran have waged war on two fronts in the past 100 years – against the internal dictatorship and against foreign rule – and that they are merging these two struggles. In one moment it is much more about inner oppression and in another moment it is much more about foreign domination.
To a very small extent, we have seen this happen in the past few weeks with people on the street who were against the murder of Soleimani and then against oppression and corruption. It is in the Iranian political culture to combine these two struggles.
Are we still missing something about the protests?
To add one thing: we see many women at the forefront of these mobilizations, demonstrations and protests. If you look at the pictures, you will see them. I think that’s excellent and a picture of future Iran.
The participation of women in the Islamic Republic in the political field has actually increased in recent decades due to the expansion of education. Women’s participation in the labor market declined and became discouraged in the 1980s, but has been promoted since the 1990s. When women participate, they also find that they face obstacles that limit their participation. So there is tremendous tension there that causes women to really develop political awareness and activism and the will to take to the streets. I think that’s really a hopeful development.
For reasons of clarity, this interview was edited and condensed.