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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a Christmas greeting on Dec. 23, quoting the Quran and saying, “A very happy and peaceful Christmas to all. May Christ's universal message of peace be embraced in the coming year.” Then his account, usually prolific, went silent. Zarif studied for a decade in the United States, speaks and usually posts in perfect English, and is normally the articulate Iranian official face toward the Western world. But he said nothing for the next 10 days as Iran turned anything but peaceful.
On Dec. 28 hundreds of people took to the streets in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, protesting high prices and unemployment that in the past year rocketed past 12.4 percent, all while the country increasingly has been embroiled in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Videos posted online showed a crowd in Mashhad’s streets chanting "death to Rouhani,” a reference to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, and "death to the dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Police used water cannons to disperse the protests, but the attempts only served to spread them like wildfire.
From Mashhad the street demonstrations grew the first day to two more cities, and by Dec. 30 reached Tehran, the capital. That day they ignited across the country’s northern tier, and within 24 hours had reached more than 50 cities in 27 provinces—covering all regions of the country, rural and urban areas, and touching on areas not only dominated by the country’s dominant Iranian Shiites but also in places with large Kurdish, Armenian, and other ethnic populations.
Caught off guard, Iran’s ruling clerics—including Supreme Leader Khamenei and the 12-member Council of Guardians—remained aloof, stressing in press statements the protests were the work of outside enemies and that Iranian leaders would respect the rights of Iranian citizens.
Recent developments in the Middle East pose increasing challenges for Iran’s Islamic regime, which is increasingly isolated as the world’s leading Shiite regime.
After days of silence, Khamenei—whose poster-size image was being burned in the streets—tweeted on Jan. 2, “I have something to say on these events, and I will speak to the dear people when the time is right.”
The foreign minister, Zarif, today returned to Twitter for the first time since the protests to say: “Iran’s security and stability depend on its own people, who—unlike the peoples of Trumps regional ‘bffs’—have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected, and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction.”
But roving cameras caught both the surge in demonstrations and the violent crackdowns that greeted them—in central Tehran, in Rasht, and in Isfahan, where protesters attacked government buildings and at least five demonstrators were killed. Videoed scenes showed smoke rising and streams of paramilitary squads arriving on motorcycles to quash protests.
In Shiraz, police in riot gear confronted protesters on Monday night, images showed, only to be overrun by the protesters. Numbers could not be verified, but at least 22 Iranians reportedly have been killed.
WESTERN FOCUS on Iranian aggression—Iranian militias have staked territory in Iraq and Syria while fighting ISIS, and Iran has provided support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and backed terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Gaza—has overshadowed growing turmoil within Iran, a country of 80 million people.
Sanctions relief brought on by the 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other Western powers has benefited mostly the Khamenei regime and is little felt in the streets where inflation and unemployment rule.
At the same time, recent developments in the Middle East pose increasing challenges for Iran’s Islamic regime, which is increasingly isolated as the world’s leading Shiite regime. Sunni power Saudi Arabia has made new overtures to Lebanon and Jordan, shoring up Sunni support in the region to counter Iran. And a month ago Israel for the first time agreed to share intelligence with the Saudis.
While many would cheer the downfall of Iran’s regime, which instituted strict Islamic law and backed jihadist terrorist organizations since coming to power in 1979, street uprisings in the Middle East have a way of going wrong. Seemingly leaderless street protests in Syria in 2011 paved the way for nearly seven years of civil war that has killed nearly half a million people.
Experts stress it’s too early to say who, if anyone, is leading protests and where they are headed, though clearly the regime’s response will be repressive. “We must approach these protests with humility in understanding their ultimate meaning and impact,” argue Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, and Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writing in Politico.
Shapiro supported the nuclear deal, while Dubowitz opposed it, but both write that protests for the moment are not about U.S. policy or the 2015 agreement. “Nuclear deal supporters and opponents should resist the urge to make this a ‘gotcha moment’ for people with whom they have tussled on Iran policy. This undermines the cause of ensuring broad, bipartisan support for peaceful protests, and hopefully real political change.”
But the United States faces renewed deadlines later this month on certifying Iran’s compliance under the deal, including continued sanctions relief, and President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to end the Obama-era deal, may see the unrest as reason to pull the United States completely from the arrangement.