Opinion Columnists 04 Dec 2022 Saeed Naqvi | Will ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

Saeed Naqvi | Will the protests compel Iranian regime to begin gradual reforms?

Published Dec 5, 2022, 8:51 am IST
Updated Dec 5, 2022, 8:51 am IST
In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with a group of Basij paramilitary force in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (Photo: AP)
 In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with a group of Basij paramilitary force in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (Photo: AP)

When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei turns up in Isfahan, Iran’s city of culture and learning, and delivers an elaborate, hour-long statement on the country’s economic and social travails, and devotes one-third of the speech to the protests, it’s clear that the regime has been jolted into thinking. Can it get out of its own straitjacket, or at least put an elastic around it? Only time will tell.

The Iran unrest began in September when 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died in the morality police’s custody. The charge was that she didn’t wear the hijab properly. The nature of the crime and its punishment invited a novel form of demonstration by women film stars and women from the world of fashion, politics. These women defiantly chopped off their hair in front of the cameras. This became a global phenomenon too, but on a more limited scale compared to the World Cup bombshell when, in its opening game with England, the team refrained from singing the national anthem. This was before the world’s largest audience: billions of soccer fans.

The other dissimilarity between the hair chopping and the symbolic statement by the football team was the pronounced class difference. The chopping of hair by ladies of fashion was by a relatively elite group. The catchment area for the football team, like of the army and police, is from the lower middle class and thus far more representative of the masses.

Folks were suspicious from Day 1 in September. How did an Associated Press reporter in Europe give graphic accounts of the protesters’ march when our own limited sources told us the Internet was blocked by the Iranian authorities.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken was asked how Washington would help the Iranian protesters against state repression. Mr Blinken virtually indicated the size of the equipment that would be made available to the Iranian protesters to beat the Internet restrictions. The technology he was referring to had been perfected by the Barack Obama administration during the Syrian operations. I learnt of it from James Glanz and John Markoff, two New York Times reporters, who said: “One operation was out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop in Washington’s L Street where a group of young entrepreneurs, looking like a garage band, were fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype ‘Internet in a suitcase’.” It was all to prepare for an elaborate “Liberation Technology Movement”, which has now found robust entry in Iran.

The two NYT reporters had explained it was the Obama administration which was leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that “dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments”.

Surely all this is available to the targeted elite in Iran. How do they react? Also, how do we find out how the ruling elite in Tehran plan to cope with the surging protests? The Economist alerted us weeks ago that the protests which show the “exhilarating bravery of women”, may, with the help of men, make possible the “removal of the vile system”.

There was a time when the Economist could be relied upon. This was before the days when the soul of Rupert Murdoch took up residence in journalism as it evolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The neo-cons have subsided, but some of their agenda lives on in publications like the Economist

There is a problem. When the Economist, or its many cousins, support the Iran protests, there is a tendency in recent years to put on one’s doubting cap, and seek alternative sources of information. In this case, I didn’t have to look far for sources. The protest by Iran’s national football team came across live to the whole world. We saw it live on TV. It looked so authentic.

The Economist has been hostile to the ayatollahs ever since they replaced the magazine’s favourite, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. Those opposed to the regime generally find themselves on the right side of the publication and its partisans, which could include some spurious illiberal interests. 

This agitation has gone way beyond the issue of the hijab, which in any case was always something of an exaggeration. Yes, I have stayed in hotels across Iran where there was always a plaque advising women guests to respect Iranian culture by covering their heads. I never found it offensive.

On the streets and in many social institutions, women in fashionable Western outfits would either discard the hijab or wear it in its flimsiest version: a scarf covering only half the head. Almost a fashion statement!

These demonstrations are the eruption of a society groaning under a host of economic ills. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, himself put his finger on the nub – the economy. This he did in the course of an important speech in Isfahan. Iran faces many economic and social problems. The protests are an expression of the people’s anger, he said, and this anger was being taken advantage of by the enemy (America) for a simple reason: “The progress of the Islamic revolution invalidates the Western world’s logic of liberal democracy.”

After talking to as many sources as I could, I can say with certainty that these protests have jolted the Iranian regime, but it is nowhere near collapse. The hundreds who have died are blamed by the pro-regime intelligentsia on “Kushtey-Saazi”, or “manufacturing death”. Example: “Deceased was a participant in anti-government protests and ‘rioting’, and was deliberately killed by fellow rioters to increase the body count that can be blamed on the government.”

When government supporters put out such material, it does not smack of the truth but of its exact opposite.

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