What You Need to Know about Outside Factors on Iran’s Public Protests
Since July 31, new street protests have taken place in a number of Iranian cities, including Tehran, Karaj and cities in Isfahan Province.
The new protests have absolutely not been as significant as the late December/early January demonstrations. But they have had a particular importance that distinguishes them from many previous protests: they erupted after the launch of a social media campaign inviting and urging people to stage protests during the afternoon of July 31. Activists based outside the country used Telegram and other social networks to play a considerable role in this particular campaign.
It cannot be denied that, prior to July 31, a large number of small protests had taken place in various cities in Iran. On a number of occasions, Iranian traders, including in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, staged strikes to protest against the collapse of the Iranian currency, the rial, on the foreign exchange market, which had seriously affected their businesses.
It is also noteworthy that, on the morning of July 31, before the time that campaigners on social media called for protests to begin, a group of people had already demonstrated in one Isfahan suburban neighbourhood. These protesters, who were angry about economic conditions, chanted radical slogans against the Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, at least in one Iranian city, Karaj, southwest of Tehran, the protests started at the time that the campaigners had indicated (6 pm, Iran time). Karaj, Tehran and a few other cities witnessed more protests in the coming days.
The question of whether or not foreign-based political and media activists play an important role in Iran’s developments has a long history. The recent protests may pose more questions about the extent to which expatriate campaigners can affect events in Iran.
Were the December/January Protests Led from Abroad?
The widespread demonstrations that took place in late December and early January were undoubtedly unexpected, for Iranians inside and outside the country, as well as for other people.
Prior to the demonstrations, many Iranian cities had been the site of protests, mainly for economic reasons. But Iranian political analysts could not begin to imagine that in more than 100 cities people would go out on the streets, and that in 42 cities the protests would lead to violent clashes with security forces (according to the Ministry of Interior). In fact, expatriate activists could not have predicted these particular protests, let alone organize them. It is worth mentioning that during the late December/early January protests, many journalists had difficulties understanding the correct location of some of the small cities that had joined the protests; despite huge economic problems in these cities, very few journalists had ever heard about them. The fact that in a number of such cities people went out into the streets, chanted very radical slogans against the Iranian regime, and even attacked certain government offices, caught a lot of people by surprise.
In the course of the protests, hardline activists and media outlets published many baseless reports accusing protesters of being connected to various foreign-based armed groups (including ISIS or the Mujahedin-e Khalqh Organization, also known as MEK and MKO). But even if we accept the claims from state-run media that in a small number of cities some security forces were wounded after being attacked by Molotov cocktail or hunting rifles, such occasional and random attacks were in no way similar to deadly operations carried out by armed and organized groups.
In the months following the December/January demonstrations, a lot of other public protests also took place in different cities in Iran that had nothing to do with influence or triggers from abroad.
Acts of protest at Friday Prayers ceremonies in cities including Isfahan, Kazerun and Ahwaz (February, March and April), demonstrations in response to a controversial proposal to split the county of Kazerun in two (May), and street protests against shortages of drinking water in the southwestern cities of Khorramshahr, Ahwaz and Mahshahr (late May – early June) are examples of such events.
A Specific Question: How Influential is Reza Pahlavi among Protesters?
One of the surprising aspects of the late December/early January protests was that in a number of them, people chanted slogans in favor of the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran before the establishment of the Islamic Republic. These cities ranged from Qom and Mashhad, the strongholds of the Shia clergy, to some of the country’s smallest towns.
Less than two months after these protests, on April 23, Iranian media outlets published astonishing news about the discovery of a mummy in the same place that Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, had been buried. Reza Shah died in 1944 and was mummified and buried in Shah Abdul-Azim, a holy shrine south of Tehran, but his mausoleum was destroyed after the 1979 revolution.
Given that many of the slogans chanted during the protests expressed admiration for the Pahlavi dynasty, and in particular Reza Shah, many believed that the discovered mummy would spark new demonstrations. Reza Pahlavi, the last Crown Prince of Iran, now based in the United States, announced on April 24 that the discovered mummy was possibly his grandfather’s cadaver — and then urged people to go to the streets to commemorate Reza Shah. Many expatriate monarchist activists also asked people to grasp this opportunity to stage widespread street protests.
However, these foreign-led calls did not lead to new demonstrations in Iran. This was possibly surprising to many analysts who had interpreted pro-Pahlavi slogans as an indication of people wanting Reza Pahlavi to lead Iran.
It cannot be denied that a great number of Iranian people are so angry about the Islamic regime’s performance that they wish the revolution had never toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. Such anger may lead to people chanting pro-Pahlavi dynasty slogans during protests to voice their disappointment with the regime. Many of them would even prefer Reza Pahlavi to the existing rulers of Iran.
Nevertheless, the fact that protesters chant such slogans does not necessarily mean that they are political followers of Reza Pahlavi or that they will follow the instructions from expatriate monarchists to hold street protests.
Is it Realistic to Dismiss any Foreign Influence on Iran’s Protests?
The recent protests in Iran have deep roots in the country’s internal situation rather than being a response to external calls for action. In other words, the protests are rooted in the fact that a great proportion of people have lost their faith in the regime’s capability to improve the economic situation.
However, it is not possible to completely ignore or dismiss the effect foreign input has had on people, and the role it has played in fueling frustration and anger. The huge economic pressure that the US government is putting on the Islamic Republic of Iran has undoubtedly played a role in the recent protests. For instance, as a result of Washington’s sanctions on Tehran, the rate of exchange for the US dollar has increased almost three times in the last year. This considerable fall in the rial’s value has seriously affected the economic situation, thus laying the groundwork for more economic dissatisfaction among Iranian citizens.
It is also true that when the protests start in certain places, the news published by foreign-based sources (ranging from Telegram channels and social media accounts to websites and television networks) could play a role in the continuation of the protests.
Finally, one cannot deny that in the past — of course in very few occasions — certain calls from outside Iran have led to a number anti-regime actions inside the country. For example, in 2017, US-based Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, a former presenter on Iranian state-run TV, urged his followers to damage public buildings in Iran. As a result, Hosseini’s fans broke windows of dozens of Iranian public places, especially banks, and set the entrance doors of many other places, including several mosques, on fire.
Nevertheless, when it comes to public demonstrations, until now the great majority of the protests have had absolutely nothing to do with calls for protest from abroad. Given this background, the protests that started on July 31 in Karaj may be viewed as being an important case study. The fact that the protests were triggered by a campaign on social media, with the effective cooperation of expatriate activists, might be a matter of considerable importance.
As a matter of fact, despite the very limited success that foreign-based activists and media have already had in triggering demonstrations in Iran, there is reason to believe that their influence could grow in the future.