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Column: What Most outsiders had been missing about the situation in Iran

By Isaac Chotiner, Slate
FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017 file photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, in Tehran, Iran. Iran has seen its largest anti-government protests since the disputed presidential election in 2009, with thousands taking to the streets in several cities in recent days. Travel restrictions and moves by the government to shut down social media networks have limited the ability of journalists to cover the ongoing unrest, which Iranian state television said has killed 12 people. (AP Photo, File) CAITH101

Protests have broken out all over Iran. The causes of the upheaval, ranging from discontent with the countryís economy and its stifling political system, have put pressure on both Iranís supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its less conservative president, Hassan Rouhani. To discuss the situation in Iran, I spoke by phone with Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Isaac Chotiner: There were rumors that these demonstrations were actually started by hard-liners in the regime who wanted to undermine President Rouhani. Do you put any truth in that rumor?

Karim Sadjadpour: Itís difficult to confirm, but I think itís very plausible. But if indeed it was hard-liners who encouraged people to voice their economic frustrations against President Rouhani, itís now taken on a new life. Itís being fueled by the same type of anger and frustrations that fuel antigovernment protests around the world: a combination of rising living costs, corruption, repression.

But I think one thing that is somewhat unique about the Islamic Republic of Iran is that itís not only politically and economically authoritarian, but itís also socially authoritarian. It tells you what you can wear, what you can or canít drink, whom you can interact with. I think thatís been a longtime source of frustration in particular for young Iranians.

What do you think the demonstrations reveal about the cleavages within the regime itself?

Well, Iím guessing that many of the people who are protesting are people who probably voted for President Rouhani. Not necessarily because they love him, but because they thought he was the best choice offered to them. So, itís difficult for Rouhani to come out and advocate crushing them because these were essentially his constituents. Now, there are concerns that some Iranians have said that the Revolutionary Guard are actually allowing these protests to fester to eventually use as a pretext for coming in and crushing them and expanding their authority in the country.

One of the things we have to keep in mind is that these protests, the citizens who are protesting, theyíre leaderless. Theyíre unorganized. Theyíre unarmed. The regimeís coercive apparatus, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia, theyíre heavily armed..

From the Saudi point of view, is the regime in Iran the worst possible regime they could have there?

One of the paradoxes of Iran in the Middle Eastern context is that most Middle Eastern governments are ruled by secular autocrats who are repressing primarily Islamic opposition. In Iran, you have the opposite dynamic. Itís an Islamist autocracy, repressing a primarily secular opposition. So, I think that many people believe that if Iran were to become a more representative government, and pursue national interests instead of revolutionary ideology, that would bode well for the United States, for Saudi Arabia.

I donít want to make this conversation about the United States, but do you see the nuclear deal or Trumpís response to the nuclear deal as playing any part in the internal situation in Iran?

People were overwhelmingly supportive of the nuclear deal. Iíve always argued that Iranian society aspires to be like South Korea, not North Korea. But I think ... Crane Brinton, who wrote a book about revolutions, he argued that popular uprisings often times happen when peopleís expectations are raised and then abruptly dashed. So, peopleís expectations were raised by the nuclear deal, but the quality of life hasnít materially improved.

One thing you notice from the protest is that I havenít heard any slogans denouncing sanctions or denouncing America or Donald Trump. The slogans are essentially denouncing Iranís leadership and corruption and mismanagement.

Is there anything that the White House should do or not do?

I think whatís most important for them to do is to think about ways to prevent the Iranian government from being able to shut down the Internet, and control and monopolize communication. One way I think the U.S. can do that is to make clear to companies and countries around the world that if theyíre found complicit in providing the Iranian government the means and technology to repress or censor people, theyíll be censured by the United States.

Is it harder to tell companies that, when we are not consistent in our outrage about countries in the region repressing their people?

Listen, if youíre an American politician or youíre working at the State Department, and youíre thinking about U.S. national interests, a protest movement against a government whose official slogan is "Death to America" is more appealing to you than a protest movement against the Jordanian monarchy, which is allied with the United States. So, thereís always going to be a moral inconsistency there because youíre not looking at this through a purely moral lens. Youíre looking at this through the lens of U.S. national interests. So yeah, antigovernment protests in Iran give U.S. officials hope.

© 2018 Slate