Why we should have paid attention to Iran

An unstable Iran could have added to Islamabad's problems in Balochistan

Why we should have paid attention to Iran
It is calm in Iran once again after week-long protests had Western capitals and Iran’s Arab neighbours hoping for a major revolt against a regime they find difficult to work with and whose growing influence in the region they worry about.

In the aftermath some introspection is taking place on how the protests were misread and inflated. The initial furor caused the impulsive President Trump to tweet his support for the protesters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the ‘people of Iran’ in a televised message wishing them “success in their noble quest for freedom”.

The post-protest soul-searching is nowhere near as intensive, however, as the excitement that was exhibited by West-dominated mainstream media. But, there are still people around who have not given up hope and are trying to convince others that what is being seen in Iran is a lull before another storm.

Iran is also looking deeply at what happened. President Hassan Rouhani is convinced that the young people are not just angry about economic conditions but there is a political and social dimension to their outpouring. Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has asked not only the government, but also the clergy, to come up with answers so they can do something about it.
The protests started from Iran's second largest Mashhad on Dec 28. They were on joblessness, ruling elite corruption, and a banking scam

The protests

The protests started from Iran’s second largest and the holy city of Mashhad on December 28, 2017. They were initially to focused on economic conditions, corruption of the ruling elite, and a banking scam. The conservatives, who had failed to stop reformist President Rouhani from being re-elected last year, had their own grudge and were waiting for a moment to vent their frustration. But little did they know that the fringe of Iranian politics, which is opposed to the prevailing clergy-led system, was also waiting to exploit the protests to project their own cause.

The West and Arab countries could not care less about jobless young Iranians who have been watching the ruling elite grow richer. This did not stop them and their media from cherry-picking news of the fringe’s anti-system rants which were amplified as a rebellion—even though this was not the case.

The protests spread to dozens of cities and were initially large, though hardly comparable with those of the 2009 Green Movement over the conviction that presidential election was rigged. After an initial surge, these protests started losing steam as soon as people realized that another group with a different agenda was trying to piggyback off them.

The Iranians were wary of the external hand as were the Arabs who were jubilant that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s threat of taking the war into Iran had materialized. The protests were then followed by counter-protests, which were really large-scale, but were hardly reported outside Iran.
The West and Arab countries could not care less about jobless young Iranians. But this did not stop their media from amplifying the protests as a rebellion-even though this was not the case

Petering out

When we ask what killed these protests, we get several explanations. One is that they ended with a security crackdown with some thousand people arrested. Wrong! If Western media is to be believed, that popular movements die with 1,000 arrests, they wouldn’t be called mass agitations. If this were true, Bahrain would have quelled its protests and Saudi Arabia would have settled Qatif and the rest of the Eastern province by now after years of a crackdown.

The regime’s argument that the protests were being driven by ‘external enemies’ offers the alternate perspective. That argument made Iranians retreat into their shell and come together in support of the regime to hold counter-protests. No one wanted to be seen in league with the enemies. This diverted attention from the original issues; the focus was no longer economic problems but external conspiracy.

“Once again, the nation tells the US, Britain, and those who seek to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran from abroad that you’ve failed, and you will fail in the future, too,” Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted to announce that the protest had fizzled out.

This external interference could be dismissed as the regime’s propaganda, but others outside Iran seemed convinced. Russia and Turkey said the same thing. We could set aside their points of view as being that of Iran’s allies, but what about the French also taking this position. Remember Paris is no fan of Iran’s clergy.

“The official line pursued by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are our allies in many ways, is almost one that would lead us to war,” French President Emmanuel Macron said, accusing the three countries of stoking unrest and attempting to exploit it.

The French envoy to the UN was more categorical. Speaking before attending the Security Council session requisitioned by US over Iran protests, Amb Francois Delattre said: “Yes, of course, to vigilance and call for full respect of freedom of expression, but no to instrumentalization of the crisis from the outside - because it would only reinforce the extremes, which is precisely what we want to avoid.”

It came as no surprise that the move to draw in the Security Council backfired and the US, after the humiliation at the General Assembly on the Jerusalem vote, had to suffer another embarrassment. Instead of Tehran being censured, members accused Washington of misusing the forum. Adding insult to injury, the Russian envoy raised the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson in 2015 at the Security Council.


Pakistan view

Pakistan remained largely indifferent to the events in Iran except for people individually following the developments. This had more to do with pressing issues at home and aggravated relations with the US. However, the situation warranted greater interest in Pakistan for a few reasons.

A potentially unstable Iran could have added to Islamabad’s security problems in Balochistan. As of now Pakistan sits easy that militancy in the province does not get support from Iran. However, instability across the border would not afford us the same assurance. We are already paying heavily for instability in Afghanistan. And as Macron worried, if this led to greater tensions between Iran and its neighbours, possibly a military conflict, it would have made it particularly troubling for Islamabad.

Importantly enough, the Iran protests coincided with an increase in US pressure on Pakistan. According to one point of view, held by those who believe in the hypothesis of an external hand fomenting protests in Iran, the situation could have been designed to simultaneously pressure Islamabad and Tehran, both of whom are seen in Washington as troublemakers in the region.

Even if one were to disagree with this analysis, Trump tweeting against only Pakistan and Iran on Jan 1, left little doubt where the two countries fit in his foreign policy calculus. National Security Adviser Lt-Gen (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua rightfully called for cooperation between the countries to resolve the attendant complex issues, especially the great powers rivalries playing out here.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at @bokhari_mr