Looking at Iran today, it’s hard to believe that less than two months ago the streets of cities across Iran were alive with the most violent anti-government protests in the history of the Islamic Republic.
Unconfirmed figures put the number of those killed by the state at 1,500, whilst many more were (and remain) imprisoned. A week-long internet blackout silenced the nation, meaning that the outside world could only guess at the grim reality inside. We still don’t know the full scale of these horrors.
Yet, thanks to Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to assassinate Iran’s most popular public figure, we now see millions of Iranians taking to the very same streets; not demanding the Islamic Republic to justify its brutality in putting down the protests, but instead demonstrating national unity, rallying around their government against an external and existential threat.
For the deeply religious hard line supporters of the Islamic Republic, Trump’s assassination of their beloved Qassem Soleimani is vindication of their long-held views that the USA is the “Great Satan” - a dangerous, evil foe. The hardliners opposed the 2015 nuclear deal, eschewing diplomacy and interdependence with the West.
Not only did Trump rip up the deal, he has now immortalised their hero as a martyr, inciting furious talk of taking vengeance for his death and injecting a moral justification into their anti-western agenda. A female teacher in Tehran assured me through bitter tears: “Martyr Soleimani will be so much more dangerous than General Suleimani. Our severe revenge will haunt them [the US]!”
However, it isn’t only supporters of the regime who are hurting. Many of the Islamic Republic’s fervent domestic critics feel an acute sense of violation and humiliation. A PhD student at the University of Tehran warned: “A red line has been crossed. This assassination is regarded by every Iranian as an attack on all of Iran.”
Yet, whilst there is unity in the perception of the injustice of Soleimani’s assassination, there is little consensus as to what should happen next.
The hardliners are predictably demanding vengeance and unwavering loyalty to the regime. However, the rest of society - in particular Iran’s middle classes - emphatically do not want war and are seized by a sense of panic that their future rests upon how the hardliners in both the US and Iran escalate the conflict. They are in the impossible position of being stuck between the rock of an all-out conflict with the US, and the hard place of a now invigorated hard line within Iran, hell-bent on revenge.
“A war is the last thing we want to see in this region,” sighed Ali Reza, an architect from Tehran. Sadly, for Ali Reza, it is unlikely that there will be talk of anything else in the coming weeks and months. And certainly, the difficult questions raised for the Islamic Republic in November will remain unanswered, drowned out by an emotive domestic agenda of grief and vengeance.
The protestors’ grievances were well-founded. Iran is governed by a highly centralised, technocratic state which is ill-suited to cope with the demands of its economic problems, its environmental catastrophes and especially its nationwide water crisis. There is high inflation, mass unemployment, inflated underemployment and a stark lack of opportunities for the youth. Its democracy is still fledgling and deeply-flawed, with an all but absent civil society. The State is bloated, repressive and heavy handed. Corruption is ubiquitous and there is no budgetary accountability for the State’s expensive wars in the region.
If it was hard for Iranians to protest against these failings before Soleimani’s killing, it will be impossible now. The protest movements of both January 2018 and November 2019 saw Iranians take to the streets to challenge the economic and political failings of their leaders, specifically asking difficult questions about the financial cost of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East (remember the chants of “Leave Syria, think of us!” in January 2018). However, by putting Iran onto a war footing, delivering a highly emotive case for making external enemies a pervasive scapegoat, Donald Trump’s Iran policy will ensure that there is no space for any further debate in Iran on the hard economic and political challenges that the country faces.
Trump’s maximum pressure strategy has been nothing if not consistent in inflicting misery upon the Iranian people. The US decision in May 2018 to pull out of the nuclear deal, and the consequent re-imposition of sanctions, has tightened the noose around Iran. The decision exacerbated inflation and precipitated the foreign exchange crisis, the impossibility of obtaining visas, acute medicine shortages, as well as having an immeasurable impact on the opportunities, livelihoods and health - physical and mental - of those living in Iran.
Whatever happens next, Iran’s isolated pariah status is likely to remain entrenched and its people will continue to live under a vengeful and structurally-flawed post-revolutionary government, a highly dysfunctional sanctions economy and a hostile international system led by the USA.
There was another future imaginable had the nuclear deal remained in place. In 2016, the sanctions were beginning to fall away, investment was beginning to flow in, businesses were blossoming, there were visas for travel, business and study, new planes, more flights, new tech, tourists, opportunities and connectivity. Yes - the domestic problems still existed, but these incremental changes were breeding a precious feeling of hope that things could get better.
Iran’s moderate reformist leaders took an enormous punt on the trustworthiness of the US. They foresaw a future of interdependence with the rest of the world. Iran could have been open for business. Iran’s citizens could have been citizens of the world. That these things seem no longer possible is a crushing blow to millions of Iranians.
*All names and biological details have been changed.
- Charlotte Phillips is a Farsi-speaking lawyer based in London. She recently spent three years living in Iran studying for a Masters at the University of Tehran. Her research focused on Iran’s water crisis.
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