Students attend a protest at Tehran University, where a smoke grenade was thrown by anti-riot Iranian police on December 30, 2017.AP

Protest movements in the Middle East face enormous repressive hurdles and rarely have happy endings. Even when protesters “succeed” in toppling an autocrat, they’ve rarely succeeded in ending autocracy.

In Iran, the obstacles to success are daunting. Whereas most Middle Eastern countries are ruled by secular autocrats focused on repressing primarily Islamist opposition, Iran is an Islamist autocracy focused on repressing secular opposition. This dynamic—unarmed, unorganized, leaderless citizens seeking economic dignity and pluralism, versus a heavily armed, organized, rapacious ruling theocracy that espouses martyrdom—is not a recipe for success.

And yet, against this inauspicious backdrop, Iran’s mushrooming anti-government protests—although so far much smaller in scale than the country’s 2009 uprising—have been unprecedented in their geographic scope and intensity. They began December 28 in Mashhad, a Shiite pilgrimage city often considered a regime stronghold, with protesters chanting slogans like “leave Syria alone, think about us.” They soon spread to Qom, Iran’s holiest city, where protesters expressed nostalgia for Reza Shah, the 20th-century modernizing autocrat who ruthlessly repressed the clergy. They continued in provincial towns, with thousands chanting, “we don’t want an Islamic Republic” in Najafabad, “death to the revolutionary guards” in Rasht, and “death to the dictator” in Khoramabad. They’ve since spread to Tehran, and hundreds have been arrested, the BBC reported, citing Iranian officials.  

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.

While some have expressed hope these protests might compel the Iranian government to try and address popular grievances, history shows us the opposite is more likely true. In the weeks and months to come, expect the regime to grow ever more repressive. Iran’s security forces thrive when there is insecurity. Some Iranians even fear the IRGC has allowed the protests to fester as a pretext for expanding their authority in the name of national security.  

What can the United States do?

It is only natural that popular agitations against a regime whose official slogan is “Death to America” will elicit strong support from U.S. politicians. The question, as always, is what is the most constructive way for Washington to “support” such protests? In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush infamously encouraged Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein. When they did so and were slaughtered, international outrage was directed at Bush more than Saddam. In 2009 the Obama administration offered only tepid support to the Green Movement uprisings in Iran, something Hillary Clinton later described as her biggest regret as Secretary of State.

What should American leaders do, then? While carefully crafted expressions of solidarity with the people, but not incitement, are good for posterity, given Washington’s meager leverage over Tehran such statements likely have only limited impact (In contrast to official statements about authoritarian regimes over whom the U.S. has had actual leverage, like Mubarak’s Egypt). What’s more important than public statements are U.S. policies that can inhibit the regime’s coercive capacity and their ability to black out communications.

One concrete suggestion is to make it clear that companies and countries around the world complicit in Iran’s repressive apparatus—including those providing censorship technology—will face censure from the United States. The United States should also mobilize global partners that do have working relations with Iran—including Europe, Japan, South Korea, and India—to add their voices of concern and condemnation to Tehran’s repression. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been noticeably silent.     

Given the opacity of the Iranian system and its inaccessibility to independent investigation, the days and weeks ahead are eminently unpredictable. Khamenei and his IRGC backers appear firmly entrenched from thousands of miles away, but we also know from history that authoritarian stability can be a chimera. In August 1978, the CIA confidently assessed that the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” Five months later the Shah—stricken with advanced cancer unbeknownst even to his family—left never to come back. Khamenei’s health has been the source of wide speculation for years, but tightly held as a national security secret.

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence,” the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci apparently liked to say, “but an optimist because of will.” Two-thousand-five-hundred years of Persian civilization and a century-long quest for democracy offer hope about the irrepressible Iranian will for change. But the Islamic Republic’s four-decade history of brutality suggests that change will not come easily, or peacefully, or soon.

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