The Islamic Republic was itself born out of anti-government protests culminating in the collapse of the imperial order on February 11, 1979 and the subsequent victory of the revolution. By June 1981, the regime effectively had managed to defeat the internal opposition and reestablish order. In the following decades, Iran experienced political protests, but they were few and far between. However, in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018 and President Donald J. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, anti-government protests have become more frequent as exemplified in countrywide protests in November 2019 and more localized protests in July.
How are these protests perceived by the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic? While internal regime deliberations concerning the impact of the “maximum pressure” campaign remain outside of the public domain, a pilot survey of 10 articles published in Afaq-e Amniat (Security Horizon, published since 2010) and Modiriat-e Bohran (Crisis Management, published since 2009) of Imam Hussein University of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provides unique insights into the regime’s analysis of earlier protests and uprisings.
Three of the10 articles on the subject are dedicated to the study of Iran’s rebellious slums, the site of recurring economic protests. Quoting police sources, Seyyed Ebrahim Qolizadeh claims that, in 2010, nearly 2 million out of Tehran’s 8 million residents were slumdwellers. In the course of his field research, Qolizadeh discovered that first-generation immigrants to Iran’s capital tend to accept the hardships of the slums. Second-generation slumdwellers, on the other hand, generally feel entitled to living standards similar to other citizens of the capital and, discontent with their lot in life, often resort to crime and rebellion.
A subsequent study to a large extent builds on Qolizadeh’s findings, as does a separate case study of relative deprivation in the Islam-Abad slums of Karaj, around 12 miles west of Tehran. The latter study provides insights into ethnic tensions among the slumdwellers, who nevertheless tend to unite in their resistance against municipal authorities and the police.
Shifting the focus, Sefat-Allah Qassemi and Rasoul Zarezadeh’s essay discusses implications of the emergence of “a new middle class” in Iran. With Samuel Huntington’s modernization theory as their analytical framework, the authors explicitly praise the Islamic Republic for the emergence of a well-educated professional urban middle class in the 1990s but implicitly blame the regime for alienating the new middle class by denying it political influence. As opposed to the slumdwellers, whose main concern is the next meal, the new middle class cannot be pacified by economic incentives alone, the authors argue. If denied political influence, the new middle class “will organize rallies and sociopolitical movements” and “is capable of mobilizing the masses around nationalist or left-wing ideologies.” Should the Islamic Republic ignore this group, the authors conclude, the new middle class will respond by emigration, causing brain drain, or worse, from the regime’s perspective, organize underground subversive movements to fight the regime.
The communications revolution further enables the new middle class, Hossein Hosseini, Hamid-Reza Moqaddamfar, and Mostafa Qanbarpour argue in their essay on the role of the internet in popular mobilization against the regime in the wake of the contested June 2009 presidential election. The authors frame such anti-regime online activism, in particular on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, as evidence of the United States’ attempt at igniting in Iran a “Velvet Revolution,” like the peaceful transfer of power that overthrew Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
Ahmad Baseri and Abbas Ahmadi’s article purports to discuss the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s popular “20:30” news program’s coverage of the June 2009 protests. In reality, the article is a repudiation of the coverage by the Voice of America and BBC Persian services of events, which, according to the authors, ignited the anti-regime protests. In the same vein, Ali-Reza Souri’s article depicts the protests as the result of “psychological warfare” of the U.S. government against the Islamic Republic. Seyyed Mohammad-Hamed Hosseini’s article on civil disobedience as a form of protest also depicts the June 2009 protests as a “Velvet Revolution” engineered by U.S. government agencies.
Most ominously, Mehdi Zolqadr, Seyyed Hossein Hosseini, and Hamid Alavi-Vafa’s article not only depicts the June 2009 protests as a U.S.-sponsored “Velvet Revolution” and “soft regime change” tactic but names a large group of public intellectuals and reformist politicians as agents of foreign powers. Many of them were later tried by the Revolutionary Tribunals and condemned to prison.
Mohsen Baqeri, Mahmoud Babaei, and Yahya Kamali’s article provides a particularly creative depiction of June 2009 events. As serious scholars, the authors provide an honest account of the protests but perhaps in an attempt to protect themselves against accusations of complicity in efforts to undermine the state, they deliver their conclusions based on their empirical findings: the regime was weakened due to loss of public trust in the authorities; religious values suffered as the public chanted slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the concept of guardianship of the jurist; the wedge between state and nation grew; and international news coverage of the protests humiliated the Islamic Republic.
Due to the extremely controversial nature of the subject, Iranian researchers, even those affiliated with the IRGC or Iran’s intelligence services, have some difficulties discussing anti-government protests, which explains references to enemy machinations and conspiracies as the root cause of the problem. However, as reflected in the articles, the authors are not unaware of the real challenges the regime is facing from the unprivileged slumdwellers and the politicized middle class and its grievances.