As we write, the ongoing riots in the Iranian provinces are heard amid a brouhaha of facts and misinformation. Two men have been at the heart of the unsolved problems and added miseries since 1979.
The first, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei keeps silent as he does when something in the country happens that can eventually shake the basis of the Velayat-e Faqih. Any slogan against him is considered as blasphemous and leads to death.
The other man is the president, elected in rigged elections, full of words and void of action. He is the man to take the blame for the country’s mismanagement and the making of more promises, none of them kept, if the Leader wishes. Criticising the president, though dangerous, is not fatal.
The regime and the people have scrupulously complied with this duality of the protocol at the head of the state. Till now.
The formula broke last week on the 28th of December. People in Mashhad, one of the most conservative towns of the Islam Shiite, took to the street, chanting against the president, H. Rouhani, and the mismanagement of the government in tackling inflation, unemployment and general poverty: Death to Rouhani.
Whether the Mashhad protest was organised by a few men within the regime or was spontaneous remains to be checked. For now it can be left aside. However, it opened the gate for the ongoing riots. It opened the cage of the Simorgh.
Simorgh, the Iranian Phoenix, is flying off.
Kermanshah did not miss the occasion and within hours people were gathering and undermining the formula which would not question the regime of Velayat-e Faqih itself. People chanted: Independence! Freedom! Iranian Republic! followed by Death to the Leader!
Both are the new versions of old slogans from 1979. In the first the word Islamic is barred. In the second, the one who took the Shah’s throne as the representative of the divine right, to rephrase it, the Islamic Guide, is to be eliminated as the Shah was forty years ago. There was no surprise in the Kermanshahis breaking the spell and directly contesting the powers of Velayat-e Faqih.
The earthquake which took place in November 2017 and left many homeless, jobless and without resources had driven the population to despair. They have nothing to lose: the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s ruined the province and brought much destruction. The succeeding governments did not care. The population survived by emigrating from the rural area to the provincial towns first, and then, in the hope of finding work, to Tehran and other major cities of central Iran.
The bitterness felt by the population after the earthquake, despite all the cooing and visits from the regime’s men, including the Leader himself, was not to be abated. The international media were satisfied with the rosy picture depicted by Tehran: Nothing to worry about – only little damage! Everything under control!
In Iran itself, people were not fooled: it was the generosity of the Iranian population, who distrusted the public institutions that brought help through private channels. It was the tags and the words written by the Kermanshahis here and there, on the walls of homes ruined in the earthquake, to thank the army and all Iranians regardless of their faith, that showed the undercurrent of the feelings.
Note the army, not the IRGC.
As usual the national media made a Stalinist show of propaganda when the Leader and the president visited the earthquake-stricken areas. On the side, the bitterness of the population was expressed: pictures of Rouhani and Khamenei were torn. Ire replaced grief. Once a Kermanshahi vents his ire, the sting in his words are powerful barbs that never miss the mark.
The protest in Mashhad made the Kermanshahis realise their own despair and feel it through their bones. The smell of riot spread on the 29th of December. Some correspondents repeated: We have nothing to lose any more.
If the messages of the Kermanshahis, erect on the ruins of their homes could brave the regime, other provincial towns had their own miseries and griefs to express too.
Despair is the most efficient arm for destroying a regime, although it does not reveal a promising replacement. Not yet.
Simorgh Spreads Its Wings
Since then and within hours, other provincial towns joined the movement. In these early days of expressing the general mood of frustration and discontent with the Velayat-e Faqih, the latest city to join the protests, turning to riots, is Tehran.
As the death toll and the number of arrests rise among the protesters, the variations of the slogan death to the regime multiply. Pandora’s box is open.
No one can predict what will happen next, least of all the protagonists of the riots. The protesters have no planned moves. The riots are spontaneous and express the profound discontent and frustrations that have accumulated over years, waiting for a push to let the steam out. The huge energy behind the riots could be disastrous for the country if it is not wisely channelled soon.
The regime, despite its anti-riot heavy hands, has been taken by surprise; it hesitates and improvises. It says that it is time to accept pacific criticism although it calls the protesters agents of enemies inside the country and foreign spies.
For almost a week the Leader was mum. Then, the old gaga, using various communications methods, blamed the enemies of the Islamic Revolution. The list is too well known: USA, UK, Israel and anyone else that displeases the ayatollahs.
The time will come for him to deliver his official speech. Only then will the regime set the limits for the pacific acceptance of criticism. The regime cannot change its nature; it might only change its skin to some extent only palatable to itself.
The regime is not known for its skills in hearing what the population has to say. It is a dictatorial theocracy and will die as a dictatorial theocracy.
The protesters are not the foreign spies and provocators as the regime pretends. The regime itself has dug its own tomb during the years of cultivating and institutionalising nepotism, corruption, and greed. Showing off the nuclear facilities and missiles, or boasting about its influence in the Middle East, will not cover the smell of the rot from its own system.
However, for now all the cards are in the hands of the Veli-e Faqih, which has staunchly backed the Syrian regime. The Middle East disasters are ongoing and the lessons in strategy must be learned by the protesters quickly.
The ill-advised and malignant Donald Trump should keep his tweets for his own followers and stop meddling in the affairs he does not understand, unless he has plans to add the Iranian petrol fields on his balance-sheet as his private property; the only thing that he might understand. The Iranians, more sophisticated than his voters, would not accept to be the victims of his personal hatred and vendetta towards Barack Obama.
His and the American establishment’s instructions are not needed or even remotely desired.
The UK, France and Europe are well advised to think twice before bungling the situation by saying one thing, for which they have neither the money nor the power, and then doing the opposite.
The European superpowers of yesterday are not powerful any more even if they pretend to be, just to keep up appearances. The foreign policy of the European Union simply does not exist. Ms Mogherini is welcome in Tehran as long as it suits the diary of the Islamic Republic.
How would you get unanimity among twenty seven member states, some run by the most nationalist governments, which can hoist the National-Socialism flag in their country anytime without other members of the EU having their say? How would you get all of them willing to act upon their words according to the EU creed?
The one and only politician that can influence the Iranian regime, one way or another, is Vladimir Putin. He is the only international politician that can play chess on the international board, and has the means for what he says. He knows how to use its bishops and rooks, the Iranian ayatollahs and the IRGC to suit his politics.
Let Simorgh Fly
Whatever happens in the coming days, uncontrolled violence or appeasement, the certainty is that there is a political life in Iran and aspirations for a better life. As much as the picture is paradoxical and complex, one fact stands out: the Islamic Republic of Iran is less able to channel the deep rejection of the theocracy, hated and despised by the population.
In the coming weeks, those who side with the protesters seeking a satisfactory life for all in Iran will have to fight against the spin doctors, the fake-news creators and the trolls on the Internet and in the mainstream media. Perhaps the Iranian diaspora will wake up in time to take its own responsibilities.
Today, the Kermanshahis are chanting: Independence! Freedom! Iranian Republic!
Islamic razzmatazz is barred.
As arduous a path as it might be, the new slogan kindles a little candle for the future: that of The Republic of Iran, in which every vote counts and citizens are equal before the law regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or gender.
Simorgh was hatched some years ago. Now, let it fly.