“This country is a big cage.” Arash, an underground rapper from the Iranian city of Isfahan, told me resignedly. “Everyone wants to get out. Nobody can.” He’s worried as he’ll be looking at joblessness, graduating with a literature degree this summer just as oil sanctions may begin to bite hard. He’s got a two-year draft in the army to look forward to first, which he must complete in order to get a passport.
Everybody I have spoken to in recent months in and from Iran seems to embody the same attitude: a kind of nervous despair, a conviction that things are pretty bad but, amongst tightening repression, sanctions and the threat of war, they can only get worse. There doesn’t appear to be much of an appetite for resistance and the oppurtunity for any resistance appears even scarcer.
There are however a few tiny stirrings – a banner hanging above a motorway reading “death to Khamenei”; strategically placed posters of opposition leaders around university campuses; leaflets advocating a boycott of elections left scattered under the mosaic arches of Imam Square; the infamous slogan “death to the dictator” sprayed on a wall. And on the 14th of February, while the mass protests called for by the Green movement were drowned out by the flooding of the streets with security agents, voices from major cities described streets crowded with strangers exchanging meaningful glances as they sidestepped the police, never quite coalescing into a protest march. The night before, several streets rang with rooftop cries of “Allah-u akbar”, echoing the 1979 revolution and the 2009 uprising.
February 14th marked 33 years since the Shah was toppled by a popular uprising. Last year, unconfirmed reports told of over 350,000 people on the streets of Tehran protesting against the regime and in solidarity with the Arab Spring; others claimed that protestors were outnumbered by security forces and pro-regime counter-demonstrators. Overall, though, it seemed last year’s unrest would bypass Iran, which is still recovering from the 2009 “Green” uprising which followed alleged fraud in the presidential elections. With scores killed by security forces and countless others detained, the stakes seem too high for a second wave of protests.
Increasingly it may be that the Iranian people will have little left to lose. The possibility of war, which many see as inevitable, may just drive people to put aside their fears. If there will be violence on the streets either way, why not make it on their own terms? War or economic collapse is a death sentence for the opposition; this could be their last chance.
An Iranian uprising would certainly shake up the international situation. It would give pause for thought to both the hawkish neocons who picture Iranians as the archetypal bearded bogeymen and to those who equate anti-imperialism with blanket support for any regime which criticises the west. It may strengthen the voices calling for “liberation” of the poor, oppressed Iranian people; but it would no doubt quickly rebut those arguments. One way or another, it could be the rogue element which may halt the already slow escalation of tension in its tracks.
For such an uprising to take place, it would need to be less radical than the West wishes it to be; the 2009 Green Movement didn’t get three million people onto the streets of Tehran by calling for the death of the Islamic republic but by claiming they were the true heirs of Khomeini’s revolution. Civil liberties, an end to corruption, greater accountability – perhaps not the regime change that Voice of America is agitating for and certainly not the creation of a simpering Western client state, but a reshaping of the regime to reflect the basic rights of its people.
To achieve that, it would have to go further than the Green Movement ever did – drawing in the urban and rural poor in far greater numbers, harnessing the frustration of those who live in this oil-rich nation yet cannot afford to clothe their children. In 2009, the protestors were easily dismissed as westernised middle-class kids; without drawing on the economic issues which haunt Ahmedinejad’s traditional support base and without building stronger links with the surprisingly resilient trade union movement, they will be vulnerable to such attacks again. A new green wave is unlikely to mobilise the poorest, which is what held back the February 14th protests as much as heavy state security, but that does not mean they cannot yet be mobilised.
The one thing that can hold back any possibility of such a scenario is us, the West. The Iranian regime thrives on their anti-imperialist image and the more we treat them as a threat, the stronger and more legitimate they are. The tighter we sanction them, the more they can blame us for their people’s economic misery rather than their own maladministration. It is a system which has consolidated itself in war, strengthens itself through crisis and is thus stronger when it is at loggerheads with the West. It is when the storms between Iran and the West temporarily calm down that calls for reform emerge at their loudest. But now the stakes are higher, with war looming; this pattern needs to break.
Iran was ahead of the game, with its youth-driven, twitter-assisted spring taking place two years before the Arab awakening. The streets of Tehran and Tabriz don’t seem primed for an uprising right now – but if we’ve learned one thing since the fall of Ben Ali, it’s that the new generation of protests are anything but predictable. If there’s going to be an Iranian spring – or indeed an Iranian summer – there is only a small window before it will be too late. It’s unlikely if not inconcievable that this window could open and it may be the only thing which could potentially avert a disastrous conflict.
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