Public unrest in Iran started on December 28, 2017 and has already claimed the lives of two. More than two dozen were injured in the protests and about one hundred people were arrested. Experts compare these protests with the many-million-strong opposition rallies of 2009 that disputed the results of presidential election. Social and economic slogans and demands of protesters have gradually grown into political ones. They started openly opposing the government’s domestic and foreign policy and calling the government to resign. The government, in turn, blames U.S. and Saudi Arabia for organization of anti-governmental protests. What in fact has happened in Iran? How strong is the protest movement? Will it result in any changes in Iran? Is it the beginning of the end of theocracy in the Islamic Republic? What consequences a possible collapse of the government system in Iran will have?
In an interview with EADaily, Alexey Malashenko, head of Dialogue of Civilizations scientific research institute, well-known orientalist speaks of the current situation in Iran.
Protests in Iran continue. Reports from Iran are quite contradictory. What do you think is happening there?
Well, I do not think that anything extraordinary is happening there. Recall 2009 when the presidential election was held. Millions rallied then. There were opposition leaders (Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - editor’s note) who claimed something. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election then. Nothing of the kind is happening now. Frankly speaking, I do not trust the reports saying that crowds have taken to the streets in small and big cities demanding the political and religious leaders to leave. That is not the case. They complain of economic issues, but most of the population experiences economic problems. However, we do not know for sure what quantity of people have taken to the streets. No one has calculated them and it is impossible to determine their number from satellites. I do not trust this information euphoria. Chief of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps has mentioned about some 15,000 people participating in the protest. If this figure is even ten times higher, this is not that large figure for Iran. In this light, I think, nothing so far threatens the regime. I have got an impression that the regime has become even stronger, as protesters demanded resignation of both religious leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Hassan Rouhani. So, they had a reason to unite and set aside internal discrepancies.
Do you think the protests were sparked by domestic, mainly economic issues? Do you see any external forces behind destabilization of the situation in the country?
The reasons are domestic, indeed. Diesel fuel, petrol and other essential goods rose in price dramatically there. The economic situation is heavy. The nuclear deal made in 2015 and gradual lifting of sanction did not justify the Iranians’ hopes for improvement of the economic situation. Unemployment level is still 12% by official data. Unemployment among the youth is even higher – 28% and the youth is the driving force of the current protests. People mostly at the age of 25-30 take to the streets. This is ageing youth. It turns out that every third young person is unemployed by statistics. I think the situation is even worse, in fact. By the way, it is widely thought that a rise of egg prices triggered the protests. I do not know if it is a joke or not, but saying that all this was orchestrated by some rascals from abroad is good just for propaganda. The reasons behind the protests are domestic. However, many may try to muddy waters in Iran now.
If domestic, social and economic reasons, are behind the public unrest, why have protesters started making political demands, namely, resignation of the president, return of the shah or Iran’s withdrawal from Syria? The same demands make U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Yes, domestic and foreign policy issues were discussed, including the Syrian issue. There are many internal nuances here as well. That issue could be discussed and could become a subject for discussion since it costs money. Iran is deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and much money is allocated to that end. By some data, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps lost about 2,000 officers in Syria. Nevertheless, it appears that the Iranian regime has overcome all that. No one can say for sure what will happen next. Anyway, nothing extraordinary will happen. The regime has felt the danger and consolidated. Yet, there is much uncertainty in this story. It is very hard to verify rumors. It is hard to say what in fact the people participating in the anti-governmental protests wanted and how many people took to the streets.
Iran is not an open state and information is filtered there. It was even rumored that Ali Khamenei took his family out of the country to nowhere but Turkey. Why to Turkey? In such situation it is dangerous to trust Iranians. As to others, how they can know what really has happened in Iran? It is almost impossible to verify such details.
According to some leaked information, the Conservatives and personally ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were behind the wave of protests…
This is also a fake. In fact, Ahmadinejad with his ambitions and temper could do everything. Recently, it was rumored that he left politics. I do not think so. It seems that he is waiting for the right moment to act. Ahmadinejad is not an old politician. He is rather a bright figure and he does not want to leave. Neither has he any big business to keep busy, buy a yacht, have a rest etc.
There are many ethnicities and confessions in Iran. May Syrian scenario repeat there? Do you see such a threat?
I think if the regime falls and falls finally, something may start along the border – in the areas populated with ethnic minorities. As regards Sunnites and Shiites, Iran has been a Shia state since 1501. I do not think that anything serious may break out there. As to the Azerbaijanis residing in the northwestern regions of Iran, things are much more complicated here. In Baku they fail to calculate the number of Shiites and Sunnites in their country, but they have somehow found out that almost every second Iranian is in fact an Azerbaijani. Nevertheless, the factor of Azerbaijanis in Iran is not big. Neither there was an Azerbaijani factor in the Islamic revolution of 1979. There is no such factor in the current events either. No one needs to play that card. The identity issue very unsteady here. The same people may say they are Azerbaijanis in some situation and deny their Azerbaijani identity in another situation.
How will possible fall of the regime and destabilization in Iran affect the security of South Caucasus?
First, I do not know and I think no one knows. Second, there are two options, if the regime falls rapidly, within some two-three months, and there is another regime, this will be just change of Iranian elites. And there are three options here: moderate Islamists, Conservative Islamist, namely radicals like Ali Khamenei, IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, and the third and less probable scenario is a return to the time of the shahs, secular or semi-secular state.
Much will depend on the regime to be formed in Iran. I think the countries of the Persian Gulf, Arabs, Sunnites want Iran to engage in its internal affairs, first. Only moderate and liberal Islamists have such stance. Radicals will be engaged in Syrian conflict, Hezbollah movement, Lebanon and others. If an absolutely liberal government, an “Iranian Gorbachev”, comes to power, this will change the situation dramatically. He will wage a pro-Western policy. Many around Iran would like the military aspect of the nuclear issue to disappear with a change of power in Iran.
A direct question – will domestic destabilization result in “Syriazation” of Iran?
I do not think it possible. Even in case of a revolution, the most powerful force will come to power within a few months. No civil war is possible. This will not happen even in a nightmare. Who will fight whom there? Provinces vs. Tehran? IRGC vs. Liberals? It is impossible!
Interviewed by Arshaluys Mghdesyan