Iranian protests: A win for women, a bloody nose to colour revolution

The protests by the brave Iranian women have achieved much, but it’s a fallacy to believe that they will lead to a revolution. The Western press has spun a narrative that the majority in Iran is against the regime, but that’s not true

A pro-government rally in Iran.
Pro-government rallies in Iran are substantially larger than the anti-regime rallies, which substantiates the argument that the majority still believes in the regime. File photo sourced from Twitter shows a pro-government rally in Iran.

Indians are not particularly good at separating a genuine protest from a colour revolution. Didn’t Indian liberals join the Anna circus in hordes, not knowing a colour revolution of sorts was in progress? Well, under the circumstances, would you blame them if they think a revolution is taking place in Iran?

For two months now protests have been raging in Iran. It is a peculiar protest in that several segments with axes to grind against the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) have joined online — and sometimes offline — a force to create an online environment where to the naïve it would appear that the Islamic Republic is on its last legs. The truth, to put it rather mildly, is way off the mark.

There is a protest alright. A section of the urban middle class and a large section of the upper class are protesting against the high-handedness of the Morality Police. This includes men and women. However, in total numbers, they form a small minority of the Iranian population. Do remember that hijab was mandated post-1979 Revolution after a plebiscite where a vast majority of Iranians voted for it. Even then, a segment of middle and upper class Iranians opposed it but the verdict was clear.

Protesting women form a minuscule section

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As the population prospered in the post-Shah era and became upwardly mobile, the support for hijab started coming down, as one would expect. However, to believe that they form the majority is to let the imagination run wild. The Western press has spun a narrative that the majority in Iran is against the regime, but that’s not true. The fact is that while the women seen protesting form a big number, they in no way form the majority.

In Tehran, a city of about 13 million people, even if 1 per cent turns out for protests, it will constitute a sizable number. But their percentage remains just that: 1 per cent or thereabouts. A revolution will remain a distant possibility unless a large swathe of population provides the critical mass for it.

An aspect that many observers tend to miss is that pro-government rallies in Iran are substantially larger than the anti-regime rallies, which substantiates the argument that the majority still believes in the regime. But since the news of these protests reaches the world filtered through the Western press, the truth remains the casualty.

Also read: Dressed and undressed in the uniform of the regimes: Sanaz Fotouhi on growing up in Iran

In a recent typically anti-Iran reportage piece on CNN’s website, a photo caught my attention. CNN deliberately uses an image with a misleading caption: “Iranians rally…” While many would see it as an anti-regime rally, this is actually a pro-IRI rally picture used in an anti-Iran piece. The phrase is deliberately vague in the caption to make readers believe that the sea of people shown in the photograph is against the regime. 

Since hardly any CNN reader knows Persian, they can’t read the big placard in the very front, with “مطیع امر رهبریم” (“we will follow the orders of Rahbar/Leader)” written on it.

The force multipliers

Most of this group is protesting democratically and has time and again managed to extract a concession from the regime. However, its protests are often marred by another group — the force multipliers. This particular group also comes more or less from the same social background but has grown up on a sustained diet of anti-Iran TV channels hosted by a plethora of groups, including the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia but also terrorist group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and monarchists. 

It is this group that infiltrates most of the protests and turns them into a riot that then descends into a cycle of violence. Do remember — and you will not know this through the Western press — that over a third killed in the violence in the last two months are security personnel. If so many security personnel had died during a protest in any Western country — or even India — the protesters would have been crushed with the most wanton force.

Then, there are CIA-supported separatist groups right from Baloch-dominated Jaish-al-Adl in the south and southeastern Iran to a myriad of CIA-trained Kurdish groups who find sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan. These groups use the opportunity to mount terrorist attacks as the Iranian security apparatus is distracted by the protests and riots.

Repeat of Syria and Libya?

In many ways, the playbook is a repeat of Syria and Libya. A small but violent group is propped up by the West through their regional assets and the protests which start as legitimate are quickly astroturfed by these violent groups. In most cases, the liberals world over are only people oblivious to it. It became comical in the case of Syria, where officials from Qatar, Turkey and the US were openly admitting to the regime-change operation even while liberals were calling those pointing it out as regime supporters.

In the last fortnight alone, at least three commanders of the terrorist groups opposed to the IRI —  Kaku Aliyar, a central committee member of the Komala Kurdish Separatist group, Mima Mohammadi, a senior Peshmerga Commander, and an unnamed Commander of Baloch Jaish-al-Adl group — have released video messages admitting how they have coordinated with and facilitated rioters and terrorists inside Iran in planning and executing these violent attacks that killed several members of the Iranian security apparatus. That the liberals here have not heard about any of these is their mistake.

Also read: Iran’s revolution of forbidden song, dance, and kiss

It became even more comical last week when John Bolton, ex-NSA of the US and the architect of the maximum pressure programme on Iran, freely admitted on TV that American arms have crossed the borders of Iran via Kurdish and Baloch separatist groups. Bolton — for whom even Trump said in as many words that there’s no war that this guy doesn’t like — made it simply unattainable to be taken seriously for those claiming that theories about foreign-backed regime-change operation is just a figment of Iranian Regime’s imagination.

No country for revolution

Seyed Yasser Jebraily, a political scientist based in Tehran, brushes off the talks of revolution. “Iran is neither Georgia nor Libya. The colour revolution worked in the former and civil war in the latter because the US regime could activate — and arm — a dissident minority in absence of an active majority. In Iran, the majority is not passive; has never been passive,” he says.

Everything considered, it is still but a shadow of the protests that happened in 2009 and 2019, both of which were covered by this correspondent. In 2009, particularly, the size of protest marches was big. One particular Friday, a crowd of several hundreds of thousands strong came out to protest. It was so massive because not only the moderates and reformists, but a section of principlists also participated in that protest. However, not for a minute did the regime think it was on a weak wicket.

The participation in the current protests is a mere fraction of those. Mark Pyruz, who runs an Open Source Intelligence account on Iran, is keeping track of the size of the crowd participating in these protests. From an initial 8,000-10,000 in late September and early October, it has petered off to the lower 1,000s. He also points out that university students constitute 80 per cent of all the protesters. 

This is on expected lines. Why? As soon as the protests turned violent, the original group with grievances pulled out. They also pulled out because they realised that their protest has defanged the Morality Police forever and they are right. Witnesses say that several women, especially in the elite neighbourhoods of northern Tehran, can now be seen not maintaining the hijab. These women now go unaccosted by the Morality Police. Their demand de facto met — though not de jure for the time being — they quietly went about their lives. 

This left the second group, the one grown up on the sustained diet of anti-IRI propaganda, to participate in the sporadic riots still taking place.

This was reflected in the statement given by the Speaker of the Iranian Majlis and a very senior regime figure, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf: “We consider the protests to be not only correct and cause of progress, but we also believe that these social movements will change policies and decisions, provided that they are separated from violent people, criminals and separatists.”

However, the Iranian exile community and the CIA-affiliated groups that lend succour to them have such a vocal presence on social media that it gives an impression that the revolution is here.

The situation on the ground

However, this group is losing whatever little credibility it had, fast. The gap between the situation on the ground and the one inside their mind and on their social media platforms is so vast that it necessitates creating things out of thin air and that is what they are doing. I have seen well-meaning and otherwise erudite Indians re-sharing this absolute baloney without so much as giving a critical eye to them leave alone a thorough fact-checking.

When the propaganda wing of MEK floated an absolutely bogus story of 15,000 protesters being condemned to death by the Iranian Majlis, leave alone Indian liberals, even the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fell for it. He had to later delete the tweet. Not for a second did anyone stop and ponder as to why Majlis, which is a legislative body, would award death sentences and not the judiciary.

Also read: Cracked mirror: The cinema of the infinitely resilient women of Iran

This has reached a point where even those who are opposed to the regime but have some integrity left are forced to separate themselves from the cacophony. Noted anti-regime journalist Arash Karimi encapsulates the situation well when he says: “A lot of reputable Iranian journalists who used to work for BBC and have gone to the Saudi-funded Iran International are doing amazing things to defile their careers on social media. Makes me wonder about the role of institutions in keeping journalists in check.”

Meanwhile, Kurdish separatist groups, aided by the US and Israel, have been trying to take over some of the cities at the fringes of Iranian Kurdistan on the borders of Iraq where their training camps are. Attempts to take over Mahabad and start a civil war were thwarted last week. Komala training camps inside the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan have been hit by Iranian missiles, leading to massive men-and-material damage.

The protests by the brave Iranian women have achieved much. The Morality Police is defanged. Even if not removed legally, mandatory hijab will slowly find its natural death. However, the West-backed regime change operation against the IRI is still ongoing. It is the most sophisticated attempt in the four decades of its existence. At this point, there is but one certainty. The attempt is going to fail.

Saurabh Kumar Shahi is a Delhi-based journalist who has covered wars, resurrections, and elections in the Greater Middle East for over 15 years and has reported variously from Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Moscow, Tashkent, and Jerusalem, among other places.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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