A fresh wave of political uprisings hit the Middle East this year, as if to complete the work that the 2011 Arab Spring left unfinished. They have stretched so far across the region that it has shattered even Iran’s illusion that, by wielding unprecedented power abroad and intimidating authority at home, it was immune. But the events of the last few months have left the Islamic Republic exposed to the same political forces buffeting the rest of the creaky regimes nearby.
The unrest began in April when Sudanese protesters helped usher longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir out of power, and then stayed in the streets to demand civilian rule. In Algeria, the aged autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out in April as well, and demonstrators have continued to show up daily to press for systemic change.
The events of the last few months have left the Islamic Republic exposed to the same political forces buffeting the rest of the creaky regimes nearby.
September saw scattered protests in Egypt against the corruption of the state and its military chiefs, a display nothing short of remarkable in a country whose iron-fisted regime has brutally cracked down on all forms of protest. Lebanese demonstrators have turned out since October to demand the fall of a sectarian spoils system whose corruption has drawn the country into deepening dysfunction. And in Iraq, massive demonstrations that also began in October have turned violent as citizens demand an end to corruption, failed governance and the sinister power that neighboring Iran wields over the country’s leaders.
What these protests share is the expression of deep anger citizens feel at their governments’ failures to deliver the most basic services while political leaders enrich themselves; the unaccountability and unresponsiveness of their politicians; and the abuses suffered by ordinary citizens — especially those who dare to speak out. And the protesters seem to have learned an important lesson from the failed uprisings of the Arab Spring: It’s not enough to overthrow one dictator only to replace him with another; for real political change, the entire decrepit system of rule and repression must go.
Nowhere has this message resonated more than in Iran. Its clerical rulers have watched in growing alarm as demonstrators throughout the region have challenged the existing order and, in Iraq and Lebanon — where Iran’s allies hold sway — the hegemonic ambitions of Tehran itself. When the protests came to Iran last month, the country’s leaders saw them for what they were: the gravest threat to the regime since the Green Movement protests of 2009 also challenged the regimes legitimacy, only to die out after a sustained crackdown.
The internal uprising of today endangers the mullahs’ control at home, while anti-Iran protests in countries where they have invested vast sums to expand their influence threaten the foundations of its foreign policy. As Iran expert Suzanne Maloney notes, these events strike at the heart of the legitimacy of the revolutionary system.
Demonstrations broke out in Tehran and other cities on Nov. 15 in response to the government’s decision to suddenly hike gasoline prices by 50 percent, and eventually engulfed 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces. It didn’t take long for the protests to assume a strongly anti-regime cast.
Authorities took the unprecedented step of shutting down the internet countrywide to prevent news of the protests from circulating internally and escaping to the outside world, but it couldn’t shut down everything: Video of protesters shouting “death to the dictator” and setting fire to billboards depicting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leaked out quickly. As New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi tweeted last month: “I've covered Iran for 25+ years. Never seen protests this brazen, this angry, this widespread.”
Nor could they shut out the scenes of terrible violence by the security forces, such as plainclothes security officers firing on unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Kermanshah or deploying tanks, apparently to keep citizens in check. According to Amnesty International, at least 208 people have been killed since the protests began, many in the span of a few days, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 arrested. More documentation of the authorities’ violent repression has emerged since the internet blockade was eased starting last week after protests were partially suppressed.
This time, Iranians aren’t buying standard regime efforts to deflect responsibility to the predictable enemies of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. While Trump administration sanctions have played a major role in the sharp deterioration of the Iranian economy, anti-American slogans have been in short supply on Iranian streets; the regime itself is receiving the blame for the country’s troubles. This is why the government responded with historic levels of violence against its own citizens.
Tehran’s desperation is showing abroad as well — and the limits of these countries to quell their own populations now that they are inflamed. Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, stormed a protest camp in Beirut in October after it became a target of criticism, but in November Lebanese chanted, “From Tehran to Beirut, one revolution that won’t die,” doubling down on the solidarity between the two peoples and repudiating Hezbollah's efforts at intimation. In Iraq, Tehran intervened to prevent another political ally, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, from resigning in the face of popular anger; he was forced out anyway last month.
In this situation, the United States can do best by doing least. It has taken some helpful steps to boost Iranians’ access to the internet so they can get their stories out, and rhetorically supported their demands for freedom. But Washington needs to avoid claiming credit for the protests or hint at more substantive support, as President Donald Trump did this week, which only plays into Tehran’s narrative. Instead, it should rally the E.U. and the United Nations, whose responses have been lackluster; in this regard, it missed a big opportunity at this week’s NATO summit.
Washington should also make clear it supports all peaceful protests against unjust governments, not just governments it doesn’t like. In fact, there are some signs the administration may be recalibrating its rhetoric.
Washington needs to avoid claiming credit for the protests or hint at more substantive support, as President Donald Trump did this week, which only plays into Tehran’s narrative.
Iran’s authorities may eventually put down this round of protests, but the regime’s greatest weapon — fear — has lost its power. With the regime’s brittleness now on full display, Iran’s people are unlikely to give up.
This is a lesson with broad implications, both in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Western governments need to learn it as well. The protests of 2019 haven’t earned a catchy nickname like “Arab Spring” with much of the world distracted with domestic problems. But version 2.0 might shake up the existing political and economic order in the region much more completely, and the U.S. and its allies better be ready to cope.