Blowback? U.S. Assassination of Soleimani May Weaken Growing Protest Movement in Iran

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Protests broke out in Iran in November in response to high fuel prices, leading to demonstrations in dozens of cities around the country. The protesters have demanded economic relief and denounced corruption. More than 1,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the protests and a violent crackdown by security forces. The rise in tensions between Iran and the United States, triggered by the U.S. assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, could weaken that protest movement, says Ali Kadivar, assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College who was active in Iran’s student movement while studying at the University of Tehran.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Ali Kadivar, assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College, grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, completed his undergraduate and first graduate degree at the University of Tehran, where he was active in the student movement.

Your response to the effects of what’s happening now, the U.S. assassination of the Iranian commander, of Soleimani, now the Iranian attacks, warning Iraq in advance, no U.S. or Iraqi troop casualties as a result of those attacks, and this all happening after these major anti-government protests both in Iraq and Iran, what this means for the people of Iran, Professor Kadivar?

ALI KADIVAR: I think the hit at General Soleimani was also a hit at Iran’s domestic politics, Iran’s domestic democratic politics. It can tell us a lot to go on the day before Soleimani was assassinated. So, you had this series of protests that happened in December. It was ignited by the hike in petroleum price, but it turned to protests and riots against the Islamic republic. It’s actually very natural to see attacks to banks and buildings when protests are against austerity or when the protests are spontaneous. There is sociological research and research in political science that documents this, in contrast to what the previous guest, Mr. Marandi, said.

And the Iranian regime’s response was brutal and very violent. Amnesty International says more than 200 people were killed. Other opposition website Kaleme has reported about 400 or 500 people have been killed. What is for sure is that hundreds of people were killed. And this was a big damage to the prestige of the Revolutionary Guards, that were involved in the repression of the protesters, and the Islamic republic in general. One day before Soleimani’s assassination, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards went to the city of Mashhad in the northwest of Iran. There was a bloody crackdown on protesters in this city. And they were trying to make up for the blood that was shed. They were going to give money to the families of the victims and console their pains. The whole regime was scrambling to explain why the regime had such a violent response.

A letter was signed on that day by 100 conservative figures. There have been many letters to Supreme Leader Khamenei or to other officials of the Islamic republic criticizing the political situation. But what is interesting, that this letter was signed by 100 conservative figures. And they warned Mr. Khamenei that with the current approaches that the government has been taking towards Iranian politics, Islamic republic is in its way of demise.

Now General Soleimani’s assassination completely changed the narrative in Iran. There is no conversation ongoing about the protests, no conversation ongoing about the violence that the government used in response to protesters. We see in various videos, it’s very clear, that the security forces opened fire on civilians that were unarmed. This is very visible in various videos that people uploaded to social media. But then you see someone like Mr. Marandi, who’s known to be a mouthpiece for the regime, comes out and says this was just a conspiracy of the foreigners. The narrative has changed.

General Soleimani was popular inside Iran because not much discussion can happen inside Iran criticizing Iran’s foreign policy and involvement in Iraq and Syria. Soleimani was mostly seen as a national figure, as a defender of Iran’s national security, as someone that fought with ISIS. So, killing of Soleimani was seen as an act of aggression on the entirety of Iran, not necessarily an act against the Islamic republic. And that’s why we see such a crowd coming out in Soleimani’s funeral. It really heightened the nationalist sentiments among Iranians. I don’t think all these people came out to show support for the regime. They came to show their support for Iran as a country.

But, of course, not all that crowd can speak for themselves, so when the crowd goes home, then Iranian officials will come out and claim legitimacy from this big crowd that has been out. This is not anything new in the history of Islamic republic. Islamic republic does not allow open and free elections in which the opposition parties can participate, but it supports revolutionary regimes. They have had a high capacity in mobilizing their supporters. They can bring their supporters to the street. This funeral was definitely coordinated, but I think all the observers said that this was beyond just some funeral that government orchestrated. Iranians genuinely came out to mourn Soleimani and show their support for the country. But the regime is going to claim this, claim this for the regime’s legitimacy, which was in trouble because of the violent response to the protests.

The conversation has changed. Now criticizing Iran’s foreign policy is much harder. Revolutionary Guard has claimed and, I think, gained more prestige, especially from the attacks they did last night.

We hope, all of us hope, that the escalation ends. Suleimani’s assassination was a major act of escalation. Last night was escalation. We were all very worried and concerned at where this is going to go. Iranians do not want to see another war. I was born under Iran-Iraq War. I still remember running away from missiles and going to shelters. We know how destructive a war could be. We have seen this once. Iraqis have seen this once. And it’s very unfortunate that this confrontation between Iran and the United States is happening in Iraq and Iraqis are paying the price for it. But the more acts of escalation, the more militarization would embolden hard-liners in Iran, would bring security forces, such as the Revolutionary Guards, to the center of the Iranian politics.

AMY GOODMAN: I want —

ALI KADIVAR: The Iranian regime — yeah.

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