On Thursday 4 January BICOM hosted a phone briefing with Dr Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies at the Tel Aviv University, at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) and at the Forum for Regional Thinking. Zimmt is an expert on Iranian public policy and social movements and spoke about the current state of the protests in Iran and its likely impact on the ruling regime.
Raz Zimmt: It’s important not to look at the recent protests in Iran only through the narrow prism of whether it will lead to regime change or not. I believe that the demonstrations in Iran can tell us a lot more than just about the stability of the regime, namely the interaction between the Iranian regime and Iranian society, the political internal dynamics within Iran, and the level of discontent and dissatisfaction within Iranian society over the last few years. I believe that this current wave of protests is another indication of two main problems facing Iran. One is, of course, the economic crisis. The nuclear deal created huge expectations amongst the Iranian population [for economic improvement], and those expectations have not materialised. The second issue is what I consider to be a growing gap between the Iranian regime and Iranian society, especially the younger generation. That’s not going anywhere. Even if we have passed the peak of the protests there is no doubt that the Islamic regime still has to deliver on its promises for the Iranian population and to meet their demands.
The most important characteristic of the current protests in Iran is the demographic and geographic scope. For years we have been used to seeing the Iranian middle class as the leading agent of change in Iran as was reflected during the 2009 riots. They were the main critics of the clerical regime. What we are seeing this time is the working class and the lower strata of Iranian society joining the protest, which is very interesting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the workers in Mashhad or Tabriz or anywhere else want total regime change, but it does show that even those strata of Iranian society, which for years were considered to be more supportive of the regime, are today demanding answers and solutions for their grievances.
Looking to the future, it is also important to distinguish between President [Hassan] Rouhani and Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei. I believe that President Rouhani wants to deliver and carry out changes, but he can’t do that alone. He needs the approval of Khamenei . Khamenei can do a lot, but doesn’t seem to have the will to do so. So we might see more will from Rouhani to use the protests in order to carry out at least powerful economic reforms in order to improve the economy. But in order for that to happen, he has to get the permission and approval of both the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard and I’m not sure they’re in the mood to help him.
Question 1: Why do you think the protests seem to have run out of steam? And what credit do you put on the accusations from Tehran, and Moscow and Ankara, that there was external influence in the protests?
RZ: I very much doubt any significant external involvement, whether by Saudis or the US. It seems a spontaneous uprising. The original demonstrations in Mashhad may have been organised by the internal critiques of President Rouhani within the conservative Right but they just lost control. I have no reason to believe there was an external involvement.
One of the failures of the 2009 riots – claimed by reformists themselves – was that they didn’t try to address the economic grievances of the whole population, instead only contesting the result of the Presidential election. What’s happening this time is that we are seeing more and more working class joining the process, but we haven’t seen the working and middle classes come together in one national protest. For protests in Iran to succeed we need the cooperation between the middle and working classes.
Question 2: One of the other areas identified as the failure of these protests is the lack of a central figure for the protesters to rally around, would you agree with that? And is there anyone you think we should be keeping an eye on who might provide that unifying leadership?
RZ: There is no doubt these protests were leaderless, which is also a difference from 2009, but I’m not sure a lack of leadership necessarily means the protest movement is weaker. There was also no leader in Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011, but it succeeded in delivering regime change. So the problem in Iran is not the lack of leadership, but the low number of Iranians that have been mobilised by the protesters to go into the streets. In a country with 80m people, you cannot carry out a revolution with just tens of thousands.
Question 3: Do you believe we are seeing the slow end of the Islamic Republic in terms of its theocratic revolution?
RZ: I personally believe the Islamic Revolution has died already. What we’ve seen over the last few years are growing gaps between the younger generations in Iran – who are no longer ready to accept the ideological revolutionary ideals of the Islamic regime. You can see secularisation in Iran, women who are more willing not to wear the hijab, and more Iranians demanding concrete solutions to their economic and social problems.
However, I’m not convinced these protests will lead to the collapse of the regime. It seems that a significant percentage of the population might prefer political stability over an attempt to carry out a counter-revolution in which no one knows what its end will be. I think Rouhani acknowledges the fact that in order to save the Islamic Republic it needs to do two things: improve the economy and to ease the level of Islamic enforcement and governmental intervention in the daily lives of the Iranian people. If they were ready to do that, it would give the Republic a few more years to succeed. But Khamenei is quite reluctant to make the necessary changes. So it will either have to wait until he passes away or the Iranian republic will have to face more and more protests.
Question 4: You seem to be describing a crisis between the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Council. Do you see any signs of that theological class being capable of renewing itself with its younger generation – i.e. are there more flexible, modern-looking clerics emerging and ready to take over from the Khamenei arteriosclerosis?
RZ: I wrote an article a few months ago titled ‘The Predicament of Iranian Conservatism’ in which I argued that the one person who might be more flexible and carry out the possible changes is actually Rouhani. I think if the Islamic revolution wants to survive it has to adopt the strategy of President Rouhani, who is flesh and blood of the revolution but who realises – like former President Mohammed Khatami – that you have to make changes in your ideology in order to enable the revolution to survive. If someone like Rouhani were to become the next Supreme Leader, I think the model he would want to emulate is the Chinese one. He understands that he has to encourage western investment in Iran, to strengthen the private sector, and limit the involvement of the IRGC in the economy as well as agree to more freedoms and less Islamic governance, albeit short of a democratic, state with civil rights. The question is whether he will succeed. If we see another hard-line cleric becoming the next Supreme Leader than I think we will see an increase in the gap between the younger generations and the ruling regime.
Question 5: Some of the protests have been directed toward the expense of supporting foreign entities and adventures. To what extent does this figure in your estimation?
RZ: This criticism has been apparent for many years – there is no demonstration in Iran over the past decade in which one doesn’t see at least one sign which reads ‘Stop aiding Hezbollah’ or Hamas. So I think that critique is authentic. But the regime considers its support for Syria and its attempt to increase Iranian involvement in the region as a vital national interest, so such criticism will not have any impact on the policy of the regime. Second, I’m not convinced that this criticism represents the majority of the population. It has become very popular in Iran to say that the government should invest more in the economy, but I’m not sure when you ask Iranians if they should abandon Bashar al-Assad the majority will say yes. They tend to agree that Iranian activity aboard actually serves what they also consider to be their national interests. And while there are many billions of dollars going to Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., this is a government with a budget of over $200bn so it can definitely continue with its foreign spending and still invest a lot of money inside Iran if it chooses to do so.
Question 6: What does Trump do or not do? A New York Times piece argued that the worst thing Trump could do was to encourage the demonstrations as that will reinforce the hardliners who can claim foreign interference, and that it will make life very difficult in the administration about the nuclear deal.
RZ: We should all be more modest in our assessment of what the international community can and cannot do. If the situation was that millions of Iranians were marching in the streets calling for greater freedoms and the end of the Khamenei rule then I would say more active involvement from the US and others might actually help. Regime change in Iran has to be left to the Iranians themselves. President Trump is considered by many Iranians as someone who is incapable of showing any sympathy for Iran – you can’t on the one hand express your sympathy for the Iranian nation and on the other ban Iranian students from entering the US.