January 4, 2018 | By Saeid Golkar

Deep Dish: What Just Happened in Iran?

In Iran, what started as protests about food prices and inflation spread throughout the country, expanding in scope to include opposition to the theocratic regime itself. Iran experts Saeid Golkar and Nicola Pedde join guest host Stephen Anderson to unpack what this uprising could mean for the future of the Iranian Republic and its role in the Middle East.



[Nicola Pedde: We are not talking about a single revolt. We are talking about something which is more complex.

Saeid Golkar: Negatively speaking they know that they don't want the clerical establishment. Positively speaking they don't know exactly what they want.

Stephen Anderson: Who's going to gain some advantage as a result of these protests, the moderates or the hardliners? They both seem targeted.]

Stephen Anderson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Stephen Anderson filling in for Bryan Hanson, and today we're discussing the protest in Iran. This is an ongoing development. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses, and initial news reports may prove unreliable. To help us understand what's happening I'm joined by Nicola Pedde, director of the Rome, Italy-based Institute for Global Studies and an expert on Iran who frequently travels to the region. Buongiorno, Nicola.

Nicola Pedde: Hi, hello, good morning.

Stephen Anderson: Saeid Golkar is joining us as well. Saeid is a non-resident fellow for Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Welcome back to Deep Dish, Saeid.

Saeid Golkar: Good morning, thanks for having me, Stephen.

Stephen Anderson: Well, on December 28th many Iranians angry over rising food prices and inflation reportedly began to protest the economic policies of the government of Iran. However, as protests spread throughout the country their scope appears to have expanded to include political opposition to the theocratic regime itself, with some calling for supreme leader Ali Khamenei to step down and others chanting, "People are paupers while the mullahs live like gods." President Donald Trump weighed-in to support the protesters tweeting that, "The good people of Iran want change," and warning the Iranian government against cracking down on its citizens. Vice president Mike Pence doubled-down on the president's statement in a January 4 Washington Post piece saying that the president will not abandon the Iranian protesters the way former president Obama did in 2009.

In turn, Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei blamed foreign influence saying, "Enemies of Iran use different tools, including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles in the Islamic Republic." By January 3rd the head of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps announced the end of what he called, "The sedition," and pro-establishment rallies were held in several cities. His announcement was widely seen as a warning in the country, though protests were ongoing. We are recording this the morning of January 4th. Most recent reports indicate the protests are receding, and the Iranian ambassador to the UN has formally complained that U.S. interference in Iranian domestic affairs has, "Crossed every limit." Nicola, I'd like to start with you. Maybe you could tell me how these protests got started and why they started.

Nicola Pedde: The feeling is that we are not talking of a single protest but a summation of protests, so different groups of people with different grievances, which have basically joined in what then became a larger protest in Tehran. In started in the more peripheral areas of the country, and the concrete suspect that most of these initial events are linked to groups, which, in a way or the other, could be connected with ultra-radical forces and especially with groups, which are connected with former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is under, not exactly investigation, but who is under pressure from the ministry of justice because most of his most prominent advisors have been involved in a major scandal in 2011.

On the other side there are several other different groups, smaller groups, like those who suffered the recent heat wave and, which were complaining with the government because what happened in the regional, those who have been [inaudible 00:04:12] by the failure of three financial institutions in Tehran, which are furious because they haven't received any form of protection from the government. There are several other issues which enter the scene, and especially which was rode to Tehran in the first days of the new year. In a combination of protests, which, frankly speaking, seems to be without any political or ideological leadership, without any form of concrete leadership, and which seems to be quite weak in the way it has been organized and managed on the street. From this point of view I think it could be certainly described as something different for what happened in 2009, and different from many other events that we have seen in the recent past in Iran.

Stephen Anderson: Thank you, Nicola. Saeid, Nicola gave us several different reasons why the protests got started. I'd like to hear your view of how you think it got started, and, perhaps, why it expanded the way it did.

Saeid Golkar: Actually, I agree with Nicola in many, many ways. There are several explanations how this round of mass uprising started, especially in Mashhad in the second big city in Iran that is a hardcore of hardliner. I think that it's not very important what was the trigger of this protest. The protest started initially, as Nicola said, because of the economy grievances, the high price, the inflation, the unemployment, but immediately became more political. The slogan in one other chant from, "Death to inflation, death to high prices, death to President Rouhani," and then it changed to the death of the dictator, referring to the supreme leader. That's the first point.

The second point is that it spread out of this round of the uprisings compared to the 2009 Iranian [inaudible 00:06:39], 2009 was a mass uprising. It started in Tehran and big cities, and they tried to develop it, they tried to break out to the small cities. This round of the protest started mainly in the small cities. There are many grievances economically, socially, politically, and all are intervene to each other. Compared to the 2009, as Nicola said, this round of the protest for more than seven days, they are actually suffering from the lack of leadership, lack of exact or cohesive ideology. They know what they don't want.

If you studied all of the slogans in a street in south of Iran in Bandar Abbas, in west of Iran, in north, east of Iran, all of their slogan are talking about death to the dictator and asking for Ayatollah Khamenei to step down. Some of their slogan talking about the Pahlavi monarchy to return to Iran. Some of them are talking about the Iranian Republic. Negatively speaking they know that they don't want the clerical establishment. Positively speaking they don't know exactly what they want, they want the republic or they want a monarchy regime, and it's because of the diverse background of the people who are participating in this round of the uprising.

Another difference between this round and 2009 is there is no leadership. In 2009 we had Mir Hossein Mousavi and [inaudible 00:08:27] who are still, after some years, under the house arrest. This round, they don't have any clear leaders. A difference there are the small leadership among the youth. Another difference that I have to, actually, mention is I think that 2009 we had a reformist party who supported the uprising, and because of the leadership and its structure they had a better form of organizing the demonstrations in big cities. Because right now in 2017 for this new round of uprising the reformists are united with the hardliners, both are denouncing the uprising. They don't have this structure of organization. That make it very difficult for many observers to predict that this round of the uprising will continue.

Stephen Anderson: The two of you have presented a very complex picture of something that I think has been depicted relatively simply in most of our press. Perhaps the most interesting point go me upfront is that Nicola mentioned that it might have been right-wing hardliners who instigated the protests against Rouhani, presumably, in order to weaken him. Can you talk about that a little bit more, Saeid?

Saeid Golkar: Yes, actually, Nicola is right. There are many speculation, even among the hardliners, that the hardliner in Mashhad [inaudible 00:10:22] started this round of uprising in order to undermine Hassan Rouhani. Even if you take the social media there are some messages before the first day of uprising in Mashhad by [inaudible 00:10:43] they encouraged people to go and demonstrate against poverty, against unemployment, against inflation. I think this is why, but immediately when the uprising started they lost the control of the uprising. Then it became the uprising against, not Hassan Rouhani and his administration, it became a protest against the entire political establishment.

Right now that's a very interesting thing because when it had started to spread out throughout Iran then the reformist hardliner both realized that these people at street they are talking about passing reformist hardliner ideology. They chanted a slogan against both reformist, against both hardliner, against Rouhani, against Ayatollah Khamenei. They realized that they are already past this reformist hardliner ideology. They both have started to denounce the demonstration, even the reformist. If you read studies all of the reformists political people, including Mohammad Khatami, the president, they are denouncing this round of the demonstration. They call them as people who are supported by the enemies of Iran to go and undermine the security and the stability of Islamic Republic. That is shocking for many people, that why reformists don't support this round of the uprising.

Stephen Anderson: Interesting. Nicola, my question for you is both you and Saeid have contrasted the protest movement to the 2009 Green Revolution, implying that this one is less-organized than the 2009 revolution, and that it started in the rural area and moved to the cities as opposed to vice versa. Which kind of uprising should the regime be most concerned about, one like 2009 with a concentrated, well-organized leadership, or one that starts at its base?

Nicola Pedde: Both are politically dangerous. The difference with this one, in my opinion, is that this started from a general frustration. What I can perceive in Iran in this moment that there is a diffused frustration with the government, with the institution in general because of what they call the failure of the JCPOA.

Stephen Anderson: The JCPOA is the Iran nuclear deal.

Nicola Pedde: Yes. There were several expectations out of it. I think that if we ask most of the Iranians which is their top priority for them in this moment, I think that most of them will answer as employment. Increasing the capacity of the government to generate numbers in terms of employment. This is something which was connected to the expectation they had out of the JCPOA. There is a huge frustration out of it. The people is upset with the government, is upset with the foreign environment, with the U.S., with the ultra-radicals because all of them brings instability for the state. The government is accused of not being able to deliver what they promised. The opposition, the ultra-radicals are accused of, basically, provoking the international environment, so not being able to deliver from a political point of view.

On the other side the international community, and especially the U.S., are accused of, basically, betraying the spirit of the JCPOA. Basically, what the Iranians are saying is, "We have signed an agreement which was connected to the nuclear five, and you are now trying to sabotage it talking about these sides and other issues which are not part of it." This is the general mood, I think, in the country. What could come out of it is unpredictable. What I can see is that, yes, there is a rage against the government, there is a rage against the political system per se, but it's not only this. It's something which is wider, it's something which could be catalyzed in other directions, and that's probably why, also, the governmental authorities have been so scared in this phase because, yes, it's headless, it's without leadership, so it's probably weaker.

On the other side, it's also heavily unpredictable, something which is without leadership and without structure, it's difficult to predict in the terms it will evolve. It's also, in this case, I think it's something which is considered as a top priority by the government in terms of repression and security, so not spreading the protest and not having those on the streets enlarging in terms of number and in terms of issues they are requesting.

Stephen Anderson: I'd like to move to the international reaction since you've raised it, but one last domestic-based issue that I'd like to explore with the two of you, hardliners and relative moderates have been fighting for the soul of the Islamic Republic for years, 2009, 2013 and 2018 now are all important landmarks in that battle. Who's going to gain some advantage as a result of these protests, the moderates or the hardliners? They both seem targeted.

Saeid Golkar: Before I answer this question I want to actually go back to the last question from Nicola. He answered it very nicely. I think Iran society, there are a lot of fault lines, many active fault line that are shaking the Iranian society and the Iranian politics. Some of them are like tradition and modernity. Some of them are like income between the poor and middle class and upper class. Some of them are social, cultural fault lines. Because of this shaky nature Iran will witness the same round of uprising and separation for years if the Islamic Republic not to do anything about it. We saw it from 1979, Islamic Republic was established. In the first decade, in the second decade, in the third decade, this cycle of uprising and separation will continue. Which one is the worst, I think both for Islamic Republic is difficult to handle.

When you have a leadership like 2009, if you put that leadership under the house arrest you can control the movement much easily, but because there a leadership and a structure there more massive people who participate. 2017 is the leader-less uprising, so it's very difficult to contain it. There is nobody to put under the house arrest. As Nicola said, is more unpredictable what is going to happen in the next, and everybody can be a leader. I think both are, actually, tricky, and both undermine the Islamic Republic, most in the form as the deterioration of the Islamic Republic.

For your second question, I think it's a very important question. Who is the winner of this round of uprising? I think the first and foremost are the poor people, are Iranian youth and the people who believe, the people who came to the street and raised their voice. After 2009 many believed that Iran was successfully controlled and suppressed any movement. Youth came to the streets and opposed Iran's foreign policy, Iran's internal policies, Iranian politician and the Iranian political system. They are chanting a slogan against all of these issues, against the foreign policy, involvement in Syria, Lebanon, as the supporting of the Islamist group, Iran internal policy economically, politically, socially, Iran politicians, both reformists and hardliner and Iran political establishment. They talk about returning the monarchy, they talk about the clergy leave us alone, so the first loser are the Islamic Republic.

The main winner, I think, are Iranian people that showed that they are not silent. If they are silent it's mainly because of the social control. If there is less social and political control they can come to the street, and they are, in many ways, they are in opposition with the Islamic Republic policy, internally and externally. For me, the Islamic Republic and both groups in a very short term, they are losers. The people are the winner, but we have to think that how this hardliner and reformist can play or manipulate this round of the uprising in their own benefit.

One issue that I think we have to consider is the succession of Iran's supreme leader. Ayatollah Khamenei is 78 years old, and he is in a poor health. There are a lot of speculation that the year, maybe, it comes to the transition of the Islamic Republic. This transition will be another event that can bring a lot of people to the streets, that can undermine the Islamic Republic. In my opinion, both hardliner and reformists try to use this protest for own benefit. The hardliner try to show that people economically are suffering. All of the hardliners' attention is that the Rouhani neo-liberal government is undermining the poor people. Everybody is upset about the poverty, about the economy, and all of this protester motivation is economy motivation, so they try to undermine Rouhani.

From other side I think Rouhani try to use this protest to show that, or to make a case, that the people are very upset, and everybody, even the people in the poor area, in the rural area, in the small cities are very upset at the Islamic Republic. They are chanting a slogan about the whole political establishment, and we have to more fundamental change. Which one will be more successful? To be honest, I don't know.

Stephen Anderson: I think Saeid has done a good job, Nicola, of explaining that there's going to be a lot of turbulence in the Iranian political scene going forward. President Trump has said that former President Obama erred in not providing stronger support to the revolutionary movement in 2009, or the to the student protest in 2009, and he says he's not going to make that same mistake. Was it a mistake, in your view, for President Obama not to provide greater support, and should President Trump do something different?

Nicola Pedde: It's very difficult to evaluate the capacity of these kind of situations. These are seen as political interference, which could provoke, as in terms of results, the intervention of the security apparatus. Frankly speaking, the less we intervene domestically the most I think we are able to obtain positive results because, that is, at least, a vision from Europe. What I fear, coming back also to what Saeid said, I totally agree with him, there are several factors which are affecting the security and stability for the near future.

What I fear is that in this moment there could be a combination of factors, both in the U.S. and Iran, and look at Rouhani as the one could be sacrificed in the sense that, from the U.S. point of view, Rouhani could be the one sacrificed in demonstrating that it's impossible to change Iran and to renew its political leadership. From the other side it could be useful also domestically to sacrifice Rouhani, at least from the point of view of certain radical forces, in order to demonstrate that no matter what, the control is always in hands of the same groups and of the same structure. This could be another factor that I could add to the picture and, which I'm quite afraid in the sense that it's something which could provoke a series of additional consequences, which are, in my opinion, extremely dangerous for the near future.

We are in a very fluid moment in this phase, and it's clear that the paralysis provoked by the JCPOA, it's the element which is provoking most of this. It depends on what the U.S., from one side, and the international community on the other are willing to achieve with Iran. Which is the goal? This is something which is not clear, frankly speaking, among the community of the analysts. Which is the goal, engaging Iran or promoting regime change? This is something which has to be defined in terms of strategy.

Stephen Anderson: If you were able to provide some advice to President Trump would you tell him to keep going and keep showing that support for the revolt, or step back?

Nicola Pedde: We are not talking about a single revolt. We are talking about something which is more complex. This is a domestic issue. Frankly speaking, I don't think that any foreign intervention will be seen, even among the protesters, as a positive action. It could be seen as something which is able to demolish either their own credibility or their own grievances, so they would be immediately seen as those who are supported by foreign powers, or those who are provoking sedition because of the foreign interest. I don't think that there would be any concrete result out of this kind of support.

Stephen Anderson: Let's pivot a little bit, Nicola. The European economies, France, Germany, Italy, UK, have been the primary actors to move in and fill in the economic space after the JCPOA was implemented, getting ready to invest heavily in the Iranian economy. If not yet, they're moving in that direction. That might provide them a little bit of extra leverage over the Iranian regime. Why don't they use that leverage?

Nicola Pedde: Well, despite the huge amount of MOUs, memorandum of understanding, which have been signed by the Europeans after the signature of the JCPOA, the reality is that the vast majority of these MOUs is still not producing any effect. It's not producing any concrete effect because the most important element of the European banking systems, the most important European banks, are not working with Iran because they are afraid that working with Iran, that could provoke a consequence on their interest and assets in the U.S.

There is a certain degree of ambiguity in this. The U.S. treasury, it's from one side giving them reassurance on the fact that they can work with Iran, but on the other side they are putting them on a sort of alert saying, "Be aware that there are red lines that, if crossed, could provoke major consequences for your interest in the U.S." So the vast majority of the European banks is not supporting the JCPOA at all, and only few smaller banks with limited capacity in sustaining the financing required by this amount of agreements, which have been signed, are working in the country. We are still in a phase where, yes, there are a lot of good intentions. There are a lot of contracts which are, potentially, ready to be started with Iran, but no one is really working with Iran at this moment. Only small companies and small things have been transformed into concrete agreement and concrete contracts.

Saeid Golkar: I disagree with Nicola in a small field. In 2009, the Obama administration didn't get involved in 2009, and still the Iranian regime accused Obama, America and Iraq for undermining the government, undermining the Iranian government. Accused them that all are involved in the Green movement. All right, now, no matter what the U.S. and European Union is doing, the Islamic Republic's narrative is the uprising is started by the U.S., Israel [inaudible 00:29:23] and outsiders or enemies. They're going to use this narrative to convince the Iranian population and justify for suppressing the protest. My point is the U.S. and the European Union shouldn't get involved unless it's involved because how the Islamic Republic will see and will react. Whatever you are doing they accuse you.

The second point that I want to make sure that, especially the European Union, the Europeans have much leverages. I'm concerned about there are people who have been arrested. More than 1,000 people by yesterday, actually, according to the official statistics have been arrested. If you remember 2009 we know that the violation of human rights was serious in Iran. I really hope that the European Union can put more pressure on Rouhani and his government to respect the human rights, and especially try to reach out to these people who have been arrested since a few days ago. That, I think, although as Nicola said, many of the European banks are not getting involved with Iran, still the European Union has more leverages personally with the politicians, even the small businesses, on the Iranian government and the Islamic Republic to [inaudible 00:31:17] not to violate the human right, not to suppress the people who are talking. Think about the people who are in jail, that is my concern, really.

Stephen Anderson: Great. I think that you've set up some contrasting positions. I'd like to maybe finish just one last question for each of you. I'll let Nicola answer first. Why should people in Chicago and Rome care about what's happening right now in Iran? How does it matter to them?

Nicola Pedde: Well, Iran is one of the most powerful and interesting actor of the region in this moment, and it, in one way or the other was, at least until the last week, one of the most stable. Instability inside Iran and instability provoked by domestic instability inside Iran and the region is one of the effects that we have to consider. In one way or the other Iran is playing a major role in the region, and this is something also which is having an impact at the social level in Iran. It's quite diffused, this idea that, inside the country, that, "Yes, we are winning all the battles in the ground, but we are unable to produce stability."

Stephen Anderson: Sorry to interrupt you, but let me follow up on that. That's actually a very, very going to point that we should have discussed earlier. A lot of the protesters, they were complaining about Iranian support for Hezbollah, their activities, their foreign policy in Syria, Yemen and else where, saying that they're not doing enough for the Iranian people while they're out worrying about others. Is it possible that this movement or this action, these events, might make Iranian foreign policy a little bit more modest in the long run?

Nicola Pedde: Probably yes, also, because I think it's not sustainable in the long run economically. This is, sorry, a debate which is not new in the Iranian society and the Iranian institutions. It's part of a set of divergencies, which has already merged in the past, I think, starting from 2006 from the war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon. How much Iran is spending with the proxies, and which is the result they are getting out of it? The problem is, what I can see, is that Iran is in a position where it's difficult to refuse, at least in this moment, this commitment. There are concrete fears that there are, looking from an Iranian domestic point of view, I think there are concrete fears that there is a plan outside to hit Iran in several different corners of the region.

The vision from Tehran is that of defending at all cost in all these corners in order not to allow the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and all those who are perceived as enemies, existential or not, to hit Iran and its interest. Doing this, Iran is enlarging too much his sphere of influence, let's say his sphere of action in the region from, not only with Hezbollah in Lebanon but also in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, where I think it's not that much, but where there is, of course, an engagement. It's probably something which is not affordable in the long run, not affordable politically, not affordable socially and not affordable, first of all, economically.

Stephen Anderson: Saeid, what do you think about that? Will this have an impact on Iran's foreign policy?

Saeid Golkar: I hope Nicola is right, honestly. I hope because, as we know, that Iran is, actually, involved in many countries in the Middle East. Because of that there is a problem with this argument is in 2009 Iranian chanted the same slogan, "Just think about Iran," or, "My life goes to Iran." In 2009 the sanctions, started and the people economically suffered, so they talk about starting the more isolated foreign policy. If you look at it in 2009 to 2017 you will realize that Iran expanded its foreign policy, more aggressive foreign policy. 2009 to 2017 shows that the Iranian government political establishment really doesn't think or doesn't look at the events as we are thinking about that. Is this going to change their foreign policy? I hope so. I hope Nicola is right in this case.

Stephen Anderson: What I think you both agree on is that there's possible changes on the horizon, certainly more instability in the Iranian political scene. I'd like to thank both of you, Saeid and Nicola, for joining us on discussing the ongoing situation in Iran. Thank you for turning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today are those of the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show please subscribe or send the episode to someone you know who might like it. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Stephen Anderson filling in for Bryan Hanson. We'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


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