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January 1, 2018 12:23 pm

Will Mass Protests Divert Iran’s Attention Away From Israel?

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Protestors gathered outside Iran’s embassy in London on New Year’s Eve. Photo: Eddie Keogh / Reuters. – Thousands of protesters took to the streets this weekend in cities throughout Iran to demonstrate against the Islamic Republic’s strained economy, corrupt regime and costly military expansion in the region. The protests have been characterized as the country’s largest wave of anti-government protests since the “Green Revolution” erupted in 2009, following a controversial presidential election.

Although experts believe that it is too soon to tell how the renewed anti-regime protests will affect Israel, Meir Litvak, director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that if the demonstrations continue to grow, Iran might be forced to divert attention and resources from fighting the Jewish state, and to domestic affairs.

“This is my hope,” Litvak said.

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, said that if the protests “lead to regime change, [it] will have immense implications for Israel, the Middle East, the Muslim world and beyond.”

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“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been the driving force for Islamism since it came to power in 1979, so its collapse will mark the acceleration of the Islamist decline that began in 2013,” Pipes told JNS.

“For Israel, this means its most powerful enemy vanishes,” he said. “I can hardly imagine better political news.”

Pipes believes that about “85 percent of the Iranian population feels estranged from the regime, leaving it hollow and vulnerable. If this round [of protests] is quashed, as happened in 2009, the [regime’s] overthrow will be further delayed. But the counter-revolution is inevitable.”

The new wave of popular protests in Iran began last Thursday, with anti-regime demonstrations in the northeastern city of Mashhad, where 52 protesters were arrested. The demonstrations soon spread to other cities throughout the Islamic Republic, including the capital of Tehran.

In a rare display of anti-regime dissent, demonstrators in some parts of the country were overheard chanting slogans against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as the regime’s elite and sternly loyal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Protestors reportedly chanted “death to the dictator,” and “death to the Revolutionary Guards.”

Some 80 people were detained on Saturday in the city of Arak, as the mass protests entered their third evening, spreading to more than 1,200 cities.

At least three protestors were shot dead by Revolutionary Guard forces on Saturday night, as the regime moved to crush the rallies. Demonstrators will “pay the price” and “such behavior will be smashed,” warned Iranian Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli, while the Revolutionary Guard threatened to crush protests with an “iron fist.”

The regime minimized the scale of the protests, with the state-affiliated Fars news agency reporting that 300 protesters had gathered in the western city of Kermanshah. And Tehran’s governor, Mohsen Hamedani, stated that fewer than 50 protesters had convened in the city’s public square.

The Iranian state-controlled media also attempted to characterize the protests as being masterminded by American, British and Israeli intelligence services, in what Tel Aviv University’s Litvak described as “typical Iranian practice.”

“[This is] partly motivated by [the] genuine paranoia of the regime, which sees enemies lurking behind every corner, but [is] partly … an old practice of blaming foreign players for everything bad that happens to Iran, and, of course, absolving the government from any responsibility,” said Litvak. “By blaming the ‘usual suspects,’ they also seek to appeal to the genuine nationalist feeling of most Iranians.”

“Hardly anyone believes this nonsense anymore,” Pipes said regarding the regime’s rhetoric.

There are also “several important differences” between the new wave of Iranian protests instigated last week and the Green Revolution of 2009, said Litvak.

“In 2009, the protests erupted when the people felt that the government had cheated them by rigging the presidential elections,” he said. “The protests then lacked a clear economic agenda. This time, the agenda is clearly economic, [and related to] growing frustration over the lack of tangible improvement in the standard of living of the people following the 2015 nuclear agreement.”

According to Litvak, another key difference with the new wave of Iranian protests is the way in which they have spread. The demonstrations are not “mainly confined to the big cities” like they were in 2009, but have appeared “all over the country” and in areas that had not participated in protests nearly a decade ago, he explained.

“My guess is that the economic agenda appeals more to these people” in small towns, said Litvak, who also assessed that social media has played a role in connecting smaller Iranian cities with other parts of the country.

“[Iranian civilians] are more aware of what is going on, and they feel that they are part of something bigger,” he said.

Differing from former President Barack Obama’s response to the 2009 protests in Iran, President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday night that Iranian citizens are “fed up with [the] regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” and that Iran’s government “should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching!”

Litvak said Obama was “silent in 2009, because he sought to negotiate with the Iranian government over the nuclear issue, and did not want to alienate them.”

The former president was also likely concerned that an official US statement might have been used by the Iranian regime to discredit protesters, “and he might have feared that statements in support of the protests might drive the US to greater involvement,” said Litvak, who also questioned the effectiveness of Trump’s statements — due to the American leader’s unpopularity in Iran over his refusal to remove all US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

“Obama had his eye on the Iran deal that was finally signed six years later, so he kept quiet,” said the Middle East Forum’s Pipes. “Trump feels a more populist hostility toward Tehran and is encouraging the protesters. This difference will grow dramatically in importance if the protests continue.”

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained silent on the anti-regime protests during his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted Saturday night regarding the demonstrations that Iran “is wasting billions of dollars funding Hezbollah, Hamas, the Assad regime & terrorism throughout the world, rather than investing in the Iranian people.”

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