Protest in Iran: A Middle Eastern déjà vu with a twist of irony

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A recent survey of Iranian public opinion suggests that the lack of confidence in a Middle Eastern regime is starkest in Iran, although crisis-wracked Lebanon, Egypt, or Syria may compete.

Surveyed in late December by the Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute, an overwhelming majority of the 158,000 respondents in Iran and 42,000 Diaspora Iranians in 130 other countries, rejected Iran’s Islamic regime. The poll was published days before Iran commemorates the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The poll’s reach was achieved in part by Voice of America and London-base and Saudi-backed Iran International TV helping with the distribution of questionnaires. Iran International made no mention of its involvement in its reporting on the survey.

Iran, which has accused Iran International of fomenting anti-government protests and cited it as evidence of Saudi Arabia’s involvement, is likely to try and discredit the poll on those grounds.

For its part, Iran International asserted last November that Iran had plotted to kill two of its journalists.

As a result, Gamaan’s use of partisan distribution channels raises legitimate questions.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that respondents participated in the poll against the backdrop of anti-government protests that have continued for four months despite a harsh regime crackdown, including the sentencing to death and execution of demonstrators.

Middle Eastern autocrats are less afraid that the Iranian protests will be contagious like the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

There is a twist of irony in reduced Middle Eastern anxiety. Twelve years ago, now embattled Iranian leaders claimed the Arab revolts had been inspired by their 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, a monarch and an icon of US power in the region.

That is not to say that Arab autocrats have no concerns today. On the contrary, the 2010s were bookended by the 2011 revolts and mass protests in 2019 and 2020 that overthrew governments in Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan.

Rulers in Egypt and Jordan, where rising commodity and energy prices, coupled in Egypt’s case with economic mismanagement, fear, together with their Gulf backers, that a black swan could spark an eruption of frustration and anger that is boiling at the surface.

Nevertheless, lack of concern about a domino effect bears witness to the yawning gap between Iran and much of the rest of the Middle East as well as doubts the Iranian protests that, at least for now, are fizzling out because of the crackdown and economic pressures, will lead to immediate regime change.

Even so, the stark results of the Iranian public opinion survey are likely to give rulers in Tehran and elsewhere in the region pause.

The fallout of the protest is likely to reverberate over time rather than immediately in Iran as well as regionally. It may also contribute to hardening US and Israeli attitudes against the backdrop of the collapse of efforts to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and alleged Iranian progress towards a nuclear military capability.

Some of the survey’s findings could not be starker.

Asked, “Islamic Republic: Yes or No?” a whopping 80.9 per cent of people in Iran said no. Not surprisingly, that figure was 99 per cent for Iranians abroad.

Similarly, 80 per cent of those in Iran supported the anti-government protests while 67 per cent believed they would bring about change.

Almost three-quarters, 73 per cent, wanted to see Western nations pressure the Iranian government in support of the protests. Seventy percent agreed with Western governments potentially proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, expelling Iranian ambassadors, sanctioning officials involved in the crackdown, and seizing Iranian assets.

Twenty-two per cent of those in Iran said they had joined the protests, including participating in nightly chanting against the government; 53 per cent indicated they might. Thirty-five percent had engaged in acts of civil disobedience like removing headscarves or writing slogans; 44 per cent participated in strikes, and 75 per cent were in favour of consumer boycotts. Finally, eight percent said they had committed acts of “civil sabotage” while 41 per cent suggested they might.

A majority of respondents in Iran, 85 per cent, seemed to suggest that the protests and opposition to the regime needed an organizational structure. They said they were for creating a solidarity council or a coalition of opposition forces. Forty-two per cent agreed that the council should include those in Iran as well as Iranians abroad. Fifty-nine per cent expected the council to establish a transitional body and a provisional government.

The chance of such a council getting off the ground in Iran is remote at best. Moreover, Iranians were divided about what political system should replace the Islamic republic.

Inside Iran, 28 per cent and 32 per cent outside preferred a presidential system; 22 per cent in Iran and 25 per cent abroad favoured a constitutional monarchy, presumably with the return of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Virginia-based son of the toppled Shah, while 12 per cent in Iran and 29 per cent outside want a parliamentary system.

Similarly, 60 per cent of those in Iran believed regime change was a prerequisite for meaningful change, but only 16% were proponents of a structural transformation and transition away from the Islamic Republic.

In the polling, Mr. Pahlavi emerged with a significant lead as the most popular potential candidate for membership in the council on a list of 34 names presented to respondents. Other candidates included footballers Ali Daei and Ali Karimi and activists like Hamed Esmaeilion and Shirin Ebadi.

Nevertheless, the likelihood of a return to power of a Pahlavi may be even more remote than the most recent wave of anti-government protests toppling the Islamic regime.

Even so, the thought that a popular revolt, the nightmare of Gulf autocrats, would topple the regime they view as the greatest external threat to their security and restore a monarchy seems ironic at the very least.

Thank you for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed the newsletter and/or podcast. Diplomats, policymakers, investors, executives, journalists and academics listen to my twice-weekly podcast and/or read my syndicated newsletter that is republished by media across the globe. Maintaining free distribution ensures that the podcast and newsletter have maximum impact Paid subscribers help me cover the monthly cost of producing the newsletter and podcast. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber. You can do so by clicking on Substack on the subscription button at www.jamesmdorsey.substack.com and choosing one of the subscription options or support me on Patreon at www.patreon.com/mideastsoccer.  Please join me for my next podcast in the coming days. Thank you, take care and best wishes.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.