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Protests in Iran coming to an end

Iranian authorities claim protest wave has ended, whilst information suggests Iran has experienced a riot wave rather than political protests

Alexander Mercouris

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Amidst big pro-government demonstrations yesterday the authorities are claiming that the protest wave which began in the Mashhad on 28th December 2017 has ended, and that quiet has returned to Iran’s towns and cities.

It is not always easy to verify information coming from Iran, not so much because the government seeks to suppress information but because the flow of information from Iran is so intensely politicised.

This together with the relative absence of independent reporters on the ground makes it sometimes difficult to form a view of what is actually going on.

However the government’s claim that the protest wave has ended does seem to correspond with information coming from Iran, which suggests that the protests are in the main over.

Assuming that this information is true – as seems likely – what general conclusions about the protest wave can be drawn?

(1) The Iranian authorities claim that the total number of people involved in the protests was 15,000 across the whole of Iran.

There is no independent corroboration for this figure, but the overall impression is that the protests were scattered and small, making it likely that it is true.

The fact that there has been considerable violence during the protests with twenty or more people killed tends to bear this out.

Whilst this is not a hard and fast rule, it is generally the case that violence increases the smaller protests become as the more militant and violent protesters are no longer restrained by the peaceful majority of protesters.

Needless to say the more violent protests become the more likely it is that the great majority of people who might be willing to join peaceful protests will be scared off doing so and will stay away.

The result is that as the violence escalates the size of the protests diminishes, until eventually they either fizzle out or are suppressed.

The fact that there was an escalation of violence in the last days of the protests, and the fact that they took place mainly at night, seems to conform to this pattern, and suggests that the authorities are right in saying that what began in Mashhad on 28th December 2017 as a peaceful protest about economic conditions over the course of the following days degenerated into simple rioting.

Needless to say if the total number of protesters was no more than 15,000 then the claims by Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, other US officials, the EU, and Western commentators, that Iran – a nation of 80 million people – was facing a massive protest wave were simply wrong.

(2) The fact that the rioting spread to various small provincial towns across Iran suggests a degree of coordination amongst the rioters but the extent of this should not be exaggerated.

It is not unusual for rioters – and the criminal elements which invariably rise to the surface during riots – to communicate and coordinate with each other, and social media platforms like Telegram nowadays make that very easy.

(3) Was there any larger involvement by outsiders in the riots as has been widely claimed, including by the Iranian authorities themselves?

On 31st December 2017 the US based but often well-informed internet publication Al-Monitor had this to say about the use of Telegram to coordinate the riots

It is also becoming clear that the key mode of mobilization is the popular smartphone app Telegram, which has some 40 million users in Iran. Al-Monitor has previously closely covered the popularity of Telegram, how the authorities have sought to control its spread and how it has changed Iranian media. In April, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace in Iran required administrators of channels with more than 5,000 followers to register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The move followed crackdowns on administrators of Reformist channels ahead of the May 2017 presidential elections. President Hassan Rouhani, allied with the Reformist camp, easily won a second term in those elections.

Amad News, a channel on Telegram, appears to have played a pivotal role in the wave of protests. Reportedly administered by exiled journalist Rohollah Zam — a son of a senior Reformist cleric said to have escaped the country after being accused of having links with foreign intelligence agencies — the channel had just under a million followers on the eve of the protests. This number ballooned before Minister of Information Technology and Communications Mohammad Jahromi on Dec. 30 successfully requested that Telegram founder Pavel Durov shut down Amad News on account of its reported incitement of violence. Remarkably, the Iranian request was made publicly on Twitter, a medium that remains filtered in the country. Mirror channels that emerged following the shutdown of Amad News also were closed, though one mirror site was functioning and had close to 900,000 followers as of this writing. In addition, the Iranian authorities have apparently moved to restrict mobile data services in some areas, although broadband appears to be functioning. Moreover, Telegram and Instagram, which have both been unfiltered in Iran thus far, are said to have been “temporarily” filtered in some regions.

While the method of mobilization is becoming clear, it is still unknown who, if any person or group, is leading the protests. The absence of a discernible leader has left the authorities unable to point the finger, such as in 2009, beyond the usual accusations blaming foreign intelligence services and hostile states. The speed of the geographical spread of the protests along with the apparent lack of a leader has, according to some accounts, even left some protesters puzzled, let alone most political observers. This could provide an opportunity for a variety of groups to hijack the protests.

Rohollah Zam, the exiled journalist referred to in this passage, has been repudiated by his father, the reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Zam because of his criticism of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.

I have not been able to find out which foreign intelligence agency the Iranian authorities accuse him of involvement with.

However it is clear from their statements over the last few days that the foreign intelligence agency which the Iranian authorities believe had a hand in the riots was Saudi intelligence, not the intelligence agencies of the US and Israel.

Assuming that a foreign intelligence agency was involved in the riots, as is at some level likely – the chanting of political slogans during some of the riots after all strongly suggests it – and assuming that the riots really were intended to prepare the ground for a Maidan style protest movement which would eventually bring about regime change, then the small number of protesters – just 15,000 across the whole country – means that the intelligence agency in question has little to show for its efforts.

Clearly Iran is not ripe for a Maidan style colour revolution.  Though there is widespread dissatisfaction with the government, there appears to be little support in the country for regime change, and the legitimacy of Iran’s Islamic Republic is not widely disputed.

(4) As for the trigger for the original largely peaceful protest on 28th December 2017 in Mashhad, it is now clear that this was not the sudden one-off increase in egg and poultry prices as has been widely reported, but the Rouhani government’s proposed budget, which proposes large cuts in subsidies in order to release budget funds for infrastructure development.

Many poorer Iranians have come to depend on these subsidies, and like the monetisation of pensioner benefits in Russia – which in 2005 triggered what remains by far the biggest protest wave Russia has witnessed during the Putin era, dwarfing in scale the election protests of 2011-2012 – the cutting of these subsidies in Iran is deeply unpopular however much economic sense Rouhani’s liberal economic advisers say it makes.

(5) A further factor which some are suggesting may lie behind the protests – mentioned in conversations some Iranian acquaintances have had with me – is the difficulty young people in Iran are having finding jobs that match their qualifications.

The Iranian economy despite its recent growth is struggling to find jobs for the one million young Iranians who are joining the workforce every year.

Though unemployment in Iran is average for its region, heavy investment in education since the Iranian Revolution makes the younger generation of Iranians better educated than ever before and unusually well-educated for the region.

Inevitably this high education level increases expectations, and leads to anger and disappointment when conditions in the economy mean that these expectations cannot be fulfilled.

One particular point I have heard several people make is that Iran is currently experiencing a demographic bulge caused by the Iranian government’s previous encouragement of a high birth rate in order to replace the heavy manpower losses Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

That policy has now been reversed, causing the birth rate to fall – Iran is unusual in this region in having both demographic and family planning policies – but in the meantime it has led to a large increase in the number of young people coming of age now, which has put Iran’s social and educational services under severe strain, as well as making it difficult for the economy to provide them all with jobs.

The one observation I would make about this claim is however that whilst accounts of the rioters make it clear that they are overwhelmingly young men – as is always the case in riots – they do not seem to be the sort of educated young men that are being talked about in these accounts.

On the contrary they seem to be the less educated young men coming from economically poorer backgrounds who form the majority of rioters – and of the criminal class – in all countries.

Perhaps there is a wider dissatisfaction with their social and economic conditions amongst Iran’s young people which provides the background for the riots.  However I would want to see much more evidence for this than I have seen so far before I accepted it.

(6) The fact that the economy is growing despite all the problems is nonetheless probably the reason why the protests and the riots have not spread to any significant degree to the big urban centres such as Tehran and Tabriz.

Though living standards are still well below their pre-recession levels, most urban Iranians have experienced some improvement in their lives in the last two years, and this has almost certainly taken some of the edge off the discontent.

This together with the heavier policing to be expected in large urban centres means that the protests and the rioting have not spread there.

In summary, it seems that what Iran has experienced has been less a protest wave and more a riot wave, though the rioting was triggered by what were initially genuine economic protests caused by worries about the government’s pending budget.

Riots happen in many countries.  In the US and Britain (especially in England) they are a common occurrence.

In England the spread of rioting across provincial towns is a relatively frequent occurrence, and during the last big riot wave in 2011 the use of social media by rioters to coordinate their actions across the country was widely in evidence, just as it has been during the recent riots in Iran.

As in Iran the reasons for the rioting that regularly takes place in English provincial towns is widely discussed, especially in academic circles, but no firm consensus has ever been reached about it.

The key point is that whatever the cause of rioting, and wherever it happens, precisely because rioting is a form of criminal activity it is not usually considered to have any wider political significance.

What is known about the riots in Iran suggest that they are no different.

The fact that the riots in Iran have been reported by some people differently as suggesting some sort of imminent revolution looks for the moment to be more a product of wishful thinking than a true assessment of what has been actually going on.

As for Nikki Haley’s attempt to get no less a body than the UN Security Council to debate the riots, that is just silly.

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High-ranking Ukrainian official reports on US interference in Ukraine

It is not usually the case that an American media outlet tells the truth about Ukraine, but it appears to have happened here.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The Hill committed what may well have been a random act of journalism when it reported that Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Hill.tv’s reporter John Solomon that the American ambassador to that country, Marie Yovanovitch, gave him a “do not prosecute” list at their first meeting.

Normally, all things Russia are covered by the American press as “bad”, and all things Ukraine are covered by the same as “good.” Yet this report reveals quite a bit about the nature of the deeply embedded US interests that are involved in Ukraine, and which also attempt to control and manipulate policy in the former Soviet republic.

The Hill’s piece continues (with our added emphases):

“Unfortunately, from the first meeting with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, [Yovanovitch] gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute,” Lutsenko, who took his post in 2016, told Hill.TV last week.

“My response of that is it is inadmissible. Nobody in this country, neither our president nor our parliament nor our ambassador, will stop me from prosecuting whether there is a crime,” he continued.

Indeed, the Prosecutor General appears to be a man of some principles. When this report was brought to the attention of the US State Department, the response was predictable:

The State Department called Lutsenko’s claim of receiving a do not prosecute list, “an outright fabrication.” 

“We have seen reports of the allegations,” a department spokesperson told Hill.TV. “The United States is not currently providing any assistance to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), but did previously attempt to support fundamental justice sector reform, including in the PGO, in the aftermath of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. When the political will for genuine reform by successive Prosecutors General proved lacking, we exercised our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer and redirected assistance to more productive projects.”

This is an amazing statement in itself. “Our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer”? Are Americans even aware that their country is spending their tax dollars in an effort to manipulate a foreign government in what can probably well be called a low-grade proxy war with the Russian Federation? Again, this appears to be a slip, as most American media do a fair job of maintaining the narrative that Ukraine is completely independent and that its actions regarding the United States and Russia are taken in complete freedom.

Hill.TV has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine for comment.

Lutsenko also said that he has not received funds amounting to nearly $4 million that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was supposed to allocate to his office, saying that “the situation was actually rather strange” and pointing to the fact that the funds were designated, but “never received.”

“At that time we had a case for the embezzlement of the U.S. government technical assistance worth 4 million U.S. dollars, and in that regard, we had this dialogue,” he said. “At that time, [Yovanovitch] thought that our interviews of Ukrainian citizens, of Ukrainian civil servants, who were frequent visitors of the U.S. Embassy put a shadow on that anti-corruption policy.”

“Actually, we got the letter from the U.S. Embassy, from the ambassador, that the money that we are speaking about [was] under full control of the U.S. Embassy, and that the U.S. Embassy did not require our legal assessment of these facts,” he said. “The situation was actually rather strange because the funds we are talking about were designated for the prosecutor general’s office also and we told [them] we have never seen those, and the U.S. Embassy replied there was no problem.”

“The portion of the funds, namely 4.4 million U.S. dollars were designated and were foreseen for the recipient Prosecutor General’s office. But we have never received it,” he said.

Yovanovitch previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Armenia under former presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan under Bush. She also served as ambassador to Ukraine under Obama.

Former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who was at the time House Rules Committee chairman, voiced concerns about Yovanovitch in a letter to the State Department last year in which he said he had proof the ambassador had spoken of her “disdain” for the Trump administration.

This last sentence may be a way to try to narrow the scope of American interference in Ukraine down to the shenanigans of just a single person with a personal agenda. However, many who have followed the story of Ukraine and its surge in anti-Russian rhetoric, neo-Naziism, ultra-nationalism, and the most recent events surrounding the creation of a pseudo-Orthodox “church” full of Ukrainian nationalists and atheists as a vehicle to import “Western values” into a still extremely traditional and Christian land, know that there are fingerprints of the United States “deep state” embeds all over this situation.

It is somewhat surprising that so much that reveals the problem showed up in just one report. It will be interesting to see if this gets any follow-up in the US press.

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Bercow blocks Brexit vote, May turns to EU for lifeline (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 112.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s latest Brexit dilemma, as House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, shocked the world by citing a 1604 precedent that now effectively blocks May’s third go around at trying to pass her treacherous Brexit deal through the parliament.

All power now rests with the Brussels, as to how, if and when the UK will be allowed to leave the European Union.

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Via Bloomberg


Theresa May claims Brexit is about taking back control. Ten days before the U.K. is due to leave the European Union, it looks like anything but.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s intervention, citing precedent dating back to 1604, to rule out a repeat vote on May’s already defeated departure deal leaves the prime minister exposed ahead of Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.

Bercow, whose cries of “Orrdurrr! Orrdurrr!’’ to calm rowdy lawmakers have gained him a devoted international following, is now the pivotal figure in the Brexit battle. May’s team privately accuse him of trying to frustrate the U.K.’s exit from the EU, while the speaker’s admirers say he’s standing up for the rights of parliament against the executive.

If just one of the 27 other states declines May’s summit appeal to extend the divorce timetable, then the no-deal cliff edge looms for Britain’s departure on March 29. If they consent, it’s unclear how May can meet Bercow’s test that only a substantially different Brexit agreement merits another vote in parliament, since the EU insists it won’t reopen negotiations.

Caught between Bercow and Brussels, May’s room for maneuver is shrinking. Amid rumblings that their patience with the U.K. is near exhaustion, EU leaders are girding for the worst.

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President Putin signs law blocking fake news, but the West makes more

Western media slams President Putin and his fake news law, accusing him of censorship, but an actual look at the law reveals some wisdom.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The TASS Russian News Agency reported on March 18th that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a new law intended to block distorted or untrue information being reported as news. Promptly after he did so, Western news organizations began their attempt to “spin” this event as some sort of proof of “state censorship” in the oppressive sense of the old Soviet Union. In other words, a law designed to prevent fake news was used to create more fake news.

One of the lead publications is a news site that is itself ostensibly a “fake news” site. The Moscow Times tries to portray itself as a Russian publication that is conducted from within Russian borders. However, this site and paper is really a Western publication, run by a Dutch foundation located in the Netherlands. As such, the paper and the website associated have a distinctly pro-West slant in their reporting. Even Wikipedia noted this with this comment from their entry about the publication:

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, The Moscow Times was criticized by a number of journalists including Izvestia columnist Israel Shamir, who in December 2014 called it a “militant anti-Putin paper, a digest of the Western press with extreme bias in covering events in Russia”.[3] In October 2014 The Moscow Times made the decision to suspend online comments after an increase in offensive comments. The paper said it disabled comments for two reasons—it was an inconvenience for its readers as well as being a legal liability, because under Russian law websites are liable for all content, including user-generated content like comments.[14]

This bias is still notably present in what is left of the publication, which is now an online-only news source. This is some of what The Moscow Times had to say about the new fake news legislation:

The bills amending existing information laws overwhelmingly passed both chambers of Russian parliament in less than two months. Observers and some lawmakers have criticized the legislation for its vague language and potential to stifle free speech.

The legislation will establish punishments for spreading information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”

Insulting state symbols and the authorities, including Putin, will carry a fine of up to 300,000 rubles and 15 days in jail for repeat offenses.

As is the case with other Russian laws, the fines are calculated based on whether the offender is a citizen, an official or a legal entity.

More than 100 journalists and public figures, including human rights activist Zoya Svetova and popular writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, signed a petition opposing the laws, which they labeled “direct censorship.”

This piece does give a bit of explanation from Dmitry Peskov, showing that European countries also have strict laws governing fake news distribution. However, the Times made the point of pointing out the idea of “insulting governmental bodies of Russia… including Putin” to bolster their claim that this law amounts to real censorship of the press. It developed its point of view based on a very short article from Reuters which says even less about the legislation and how it works.

However, TASS goes into rather exhaustive detail about this law, and it also gives rather precise wording on the reason for the law’s passage, as well as how it is to be enforced. We include most of this text here, with emphases added:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law on blocking untrue and distorting information (fake news). The document was posted on the government’s legal information web portal.

The document supplements the list of information, the access to which may be restricted on the demand by Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies. In particular, it imposes a ban on “untrue publicly significant information disseminated in the media and in the Internet under the guise of true reports, which creates a threat to the life and (or) the health of citizens, property, a threat of the mass violation of public order and (or) public security, or the threat of impeding or halting the functioning of vital infrastructural facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industrial or communications facilities.”

Pursuant to the document, in case of finding such materials in Internet resources registered in accordance with the Russian law on the mass media as an online media resource, Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies will request the media watchdog Roskomnadzor to restrict access to the corresponding websites.

Based on this request, Roskomnadzor will immediately notify the editorial board of the online media resource, which is in violation of the legislation, about the need to remove untrue information and the media resource will be required to delete such materials immediately. If the editorial board fails to take the necessary measures, Roskomnadzor will send communications operators “a demand to take measures to restrict access to the online resource.”

In case of deleting such untrue information, the website owner will notify Roskomnadzor thereof, following which the media watchdog will “hold a check into the authenticity of this notice” and immediately inform the communications operator about the resumption of the access to the information resource.
The conditions for the law are very specific, as are the penalties for breaking it. TASS continued:

Liability for breaching the law

Simultaneously, the Federation Council approved the associated law with amendments to Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which stipulates liability in the form of penalties of up to 1.5 million rubles (around $23,000) for the spread of untrue and distorting information.

The Code’s new article, “The Abuse of the Freedom of Mass Information,” stipulates liability for disseminating “deliberately untrue publicly significant information” in the media or in the Internet. The penalty will range from 30,000 rubles ($450) to 100,000 rubles ($1,520) for citizens, from 60,000 rubles ($915) to 200,000 rubles ($3,040) for officials and from 200,000 rubles to 500,000 rubles ($7,620) for corporate entities with the possible confiscation of the subject of the administrative offence.

Another element of offence imposes tighter liability for the cases when the publication of false publicly significant information has resulted in the deaths of people, has caused damage to the health or property, prompted the mass violation of public order and security or has caused disruption to the functioning of transport or social infrastructure facilities, communications, energy and industrial facilities and banks. In such instances, the fines will range from 300,000 rubles to 400,000 rubles ($6,090) for citizens, from 600,000 rubles to 900,000 rubles ($13,720) for officials, and from 1 million rubles to 1.5 million rubles for corporate entities.

While this legislation can be spun (and is) in the West as anti-free speech, one may also consider the damage that has taken place in the American government through a relentless attack of fake news from most US news outlets against President Trump. One of the most notable effects of this barrage has been to further degrade and destroy the US’ relationship with the Russian Federation, because even the Helsinki Summit was attacked so badly that the two leaders have not been able to get a second summit together.

While it is certainly a valued right of the American press to be unfettered by Congress, and while it is also certainly vital to criticize improper practices by government officials, the American news agencies have gone far past that, to deliberately dishonest attacks, based in innuendo and everything possible that was formerly only the province of gossip tabloid publications. The effort has been to defame the President, not to give proper or due criticism to his policies, nor credit. It can be properly stated that the American press has abused its freedom of late.

This level of abuse drew a very unusual comment from the US president, who wondered on Twitter about the possibility of creating a state-run media center in the US to counter fake news:

Politically correct for US audiences? No. But an astute point?

Definitely.

Freedom in anything also presumes that those with that freedom respect it, and further, that they respect and apply the principle that slandering people and institutions for one’s own personal, business or political gain is wrong. Implied in the US Constitution’s protection of the press is the notion that the press itself, as the rest of the country, is accountable to a much Higher Authority than the State. But when that Authority is rejected, as so much present evidence suggests, then freedom becomes the freedom to misbehave and to agitate. It appears largely within this context that the Russian law exists, based on the text given.

Further, by hitting dishonest media outlets in their pocketbook, rather than prison sentences, the law appears to be very smart in its message: “Do not lie. If you do, you will suffer where it counts most.”

Considering that news media’s purpose is to make money, this may actually be a very smart piece of legislation.

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