The protests presently gripping Iran are proving as difficult for the mainstream media to pigeonhole as they are for the Iranian state to pin back. Dynamic and evolving, they defy easy explanations and go-to conspiracy theories. Events have escalated dramatically from spontaneous protest against high prices and economic stagnation in the city of Mashhad, which saw 52 people arrested on the first day, into widespread and growing calls for radical change.
People in at least 35 cities have taken their grievances into the streets. So far there has been confirmed reports of, at least 21 people shot and killed by security forces, access to Twitter , Telegram have been cut off in many areas.
The sheer speed and spread of the protests, meanwhile, appears to have hobbled both mainstream media, and the Iranian state intelligence apparatus, nullifying tired clash of civilizations mega narratives with every fresh development.
Dominant international media, even the seemingly progressive ones like Democracy Now, typically apply a reductionist brush in their descriptions of social movements in the Global South. But the unexpected geographic reach of the Iranian protests have, at the early stages, spared them from being forced into the usual divide and conquer sectarian narratives discernible in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan.
State sponsored media platforms like Fars News and Press TV were quick to revert to labelling the wave of protests a coordinated attempt by “infiltrators” or “anti-revolutionary forces and the US, British and Israeli spy agencies to stir unrest and dissidence in Iran”.
But again, the scale of the protests and the new forms they took did not allow old fashioned propaganda lines to gain a foothold.
Regardless of the outcome, this is an important moment for those who read, organize and translate movements outside of state and party centric narratives to step in and represent what’s happening inside Iran with uncompromising devotion to truth, hope and dignity.
On the first days of the protest, one of the slogans chanted by students at Tehran University was “Reformist or Conservative, this story has come to an end”, highlighting the fact that the protests transcended the traditional fronts of domestic politics.
Other slogans, such as those referencing the state’s military and economic intervention in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (“Leave Syria alone, do something about our lives instead!”) highlighted widespread fatigue with geopolitical narratives.
One unusual factor in these nationwide mobilizations is the fact that, unlike previous protests (such as the 2009 post election Green Movement) the current demonstrations did not begin in Tehran, the country’s capital. Moreover, these decentralized and sporadic protests have swelled with support from places such as Kermanshah, Ahwaz, Rasht, Araak, Urumiyeh, Azerbaijan, Khorasan and Baluchestan, where ethnic, religious and linguistic minority groups have been systematically discriminated against, oppressed and marginalized in public life.
While the heroic contributions of these groups both to the Constitutional revolution of the early 20th century and the revolution of 1979 have been persistently overlooked, young people from these communities have taken to the streets once more, armed with hope, desire and imagination. Their participation gives the protests unprecedented diversity, as well as unity. But equally magnificent and effective has been support from Tehran’s middle class youth, such as Tehran University students, which immediately recognized the importance of breaking the traditional ethno linguistic social barriers and support the popular protests from the capital.
Pro Pahlavi, Pro Monarchy Slogans
As expected, there have also been nationalist slogans and expressions of support for the Pahlavi dynasty deposed in the 1979 revolution. These require contextualisation: In the dire and hopeless decades that followed the revolution, nostalgia for and romanticization of the Pahlavi era have been common. But such expressions, which make it easy for authorities to associate regime opponents with the Shah’s misrule and foreign dependence, have a symbolic and fading appeal in the present protests.
Young protesters are doing all in their power to make sure their demonstrations cannot be hijacked by Monarchists abroad. One Twitter user summarised this collective sentiment succinctly: “People don’t usually eat what they vomited once.”
MEK Leadership Denounced
As expected, Iran’s self-proclaimed opposition in exile, Maryam Rajavi and MEK (Mujahedin-e-Khalgh), have also rushed to claim the space being carved out with blood and tears in the streets. The counter-reaction from protesters has been clearly audible.
There have been thousands of tweets against MEK and Maryam Rajavi’s self proclaimed leadership of the protests, with the popular twitter hashtag “#Shut_up” (#خفه_شو) emerging as an instant response to MEK’s social media grandstanding. This is understandable. In recent years MEK has spent major financial and political capital to represent itself as Iran’s official opposition, but the people actually experiencing oppression and exploitation inside of Iran always questioned and resisted their self-proclaimed leadership. The heavy-handed oppression of radical dissidence inside the country in recent years, as well as the gradual loss of credibility in the reformist party led by Rouhani and Khatami has given MEK space for opportunism.
But the biggest beneficiary of any notion of the MEK as an official opposition has been the Iranian state, which knows that clichèd “enemies abroad” carry far less of a threat to its legitimacy than the idea of a genuine, popular and empowered opposition at home
Trump’s Endorsement of The Protests
In another expected development, US President Donald Trump moved cynically to express support for the protests. Predictably, this has served as a green light for anyone to craft conspiracy theories and analyses that displace local agency with the American sort. Trump’s apparent support for democratic struggle in Iran is both hypocritical and even counter-effective drawing attention away from the popular voices on the streets.
The ironic rush from Trump’s alt-right, Islamophobic and neo-fascist fan base to try and appropriate the radicality of the protests for their own ends is another sub-plot in the protests that should be ignored or resisted. This is what we should have done for the Syrians in 2011. But we didn’t, instead we failed them by allowing the media to center the narrative around everything but the agency of the Syrian voices.
Challenge The Preconceptions, Let New Narratives Emerge
This is not some naive or utopian uprising. The masses of working and middle class people, particularly the hundreds and thousands of women at the forefronts of these protests, comprehend very well the potential costs involved in destabilizing a highly hegemonic, patriarchal, reactionary, sectarian and fragile militarized state.
People know very well that the current uprising can take any turn, in good or bad directions. But they also know that a long oppressed, alternative, non-sectarian, inter-ethnic conversation about struggle in Iran has finally (and unexpectedly) found its way into the public space. Whatever the outcome of the protests, it is important not torely on the usual victim blaming and regime normalizing tropes of “what did people expect?” or “people should know better” or “don’t play with fire”. These are the same frameworks that are continually deployed to dehumanize or erase local agency in the Syrian struggle.
We cannot expect people living anywhere under unbearable economic, social, and political circumstances to solve all the inherent and deep contradictions of market capitalism, global imperialism, and patriarchy before demanding their basic right to bread, dignity, equality, justice and freedom.
What we can do is resist easy explanations and convenient readings of history to describe a protest that by its nature defies them, and listen to the voices on the street.
This text was first published at Mangal Media