What triggered these protests is a subject of debate—some evidence suggests they were initially encouraged by hardline forces to embarrass President Hassan Rouhani—but what has fueled them have been the same grievances that power anti-government protests everywhere: rising living costs, endemic corruption, fraud, mismanagement. In Iran, add to that bitter cocktail both political and social repression, all conducted from the moral pedestal of Islamist theocracy.
While these grievances have been festering for years and indeed decades, among the dozens of factors that distinguish today’s protests from 2009 is the smartphone. In 2009—when an estimated 2 million to 3 million Iranians protested silently in Tehran—fewer than 1 million Iranians owned such a device, and few outside Tehran. Today, an astonishing 48 million Iranians are thought to have smartphones, all of them equipped with social media and communication apps. The app Telegram alone is thought to have 40 million users, elusive from government control, but not immune to a communications shutdown if Tehran tries to throttle the internet.
But while Iranians have a much better understanding how elsewhere is living, the rest of the world has had a less clear idea of how Iranians are living given Tehran’s effective distortion of Western media coverage. Since 2009 and even before, the dogged professional journalists covering Iran—including The Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi, The New York Times’s Nazila Fathi, Newsweek’s Maziar Bahari, Reuters’s Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh, and dozens more—have been intimidated, expelled, and in some cases imprisoned. The few journalists remaining in Iran rightfully worry about their personal safety. Many of the best Iranian writers, scholars, and artists of their generation have been similarly banished from Iran.
At the same time, the regime has provided visas and access to those whom they know will provide friendlier coverage. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been especially effective at manipulating Western journalists, analysts, and officials. This has created an opening for a new breed of opinion journalists and analysts—some of whom are simultaneously seeking and promoting business opportunities in Iran—pulling punches in order to preserve their access.
What happens now?
The Iranian government has the highest per capita execution rate in the world, treats women as second class citizens, persecutes gays and religious minorities, and stifles free speech. While there is a natural inclination among decent people everywhere to want a peaceful civil rights movement to succeed in Iran, there are ample reasons to believe it will not. The regime’s coercive apparatus—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Bassij milita—are organized, armed, and abundant, and well-practiced in the brutal science of repression. Opponents of the government, in contrast, are unarmed, leaderless, and rudderless. In addition, Iran has at its disposal tens of thousands of Shia militiamen—including Lebanese Hezbollah—it has been cultivating for years and in some cases decades. For these battle-hardened forces, crushing unarmed Iranian protesters is a much easier task than fighting Syrian rebels or Sunni jihadists.