Thursday, 4 January 2018

Protests evince discontent with Iran’s political settlement

As at early in the morning of 4 January, reports were that there had been 22 deaths resulting from the protests. Twitter had also said that there had been over 400 arrests by police in the country.

But compared to the actual importance – both internationally and locally – of the protests in Iran, verifiable facts have been remarkably thin on the ground. From TV broadcasts it seems clear that they started in the country’s second-largest city of Masshad. There had been an outbreak of avian flu in the country and following the subsequent animal cull ordered by authorities the prices of eggs and chickens had risen by 40 percent.

Iranians took to the streets in the final days of December on account of the economy. The original impetus quickly morphed, however, and people soon accused the government of involving the country in unwanted and economically costly overseas wars (Yemen, Syria). The country’s clerical leadership came in for criticism as well as the president, Hassan Rouhani, who is frequently described as a moderate. He was shown on the ABC News channel on 3 January pointing an accusatory finger at his country’s enemies. It was clear at least that the shit had hit the fan big-time.

Rouhani’s legacy as a promoter of the measures that successfully brought on the relaxation of trade restrictions after Iran agreed to stop developing nuclear weapons and also agreed to ongoing scrutiny of its nuclear activities, has not served to deflect public criticism of him. The country’s economy has not had the expected uptick the government might have hoped would follow the international compact, and unemployment is still very high. A British news clip broadcast on ABC News channel at around 10am on 3 January said that around 40 percent of the country’s working-age population is unemployed. Adding to an already heady mix of causes is the fact that half the country is aged under 30.

US President Donald Trump – who has criticised the compact because it had been brokered by his predecessor, Barack Obama, representing the US in talks leading to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed on 20 July 2015 – has been vocal in support of the protesters, and his spokesperson Sarah Sanders was on the ABC News channel during the morning of 3 January voicing support for the regime’s enemies. In the same vein, Rita Panahi, a conservative columnist with the Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper, had tweeted on 2 January:
‘Trump administration is lobbying countries world-wide to support Iranians’ right to peaceful protest & is prepared to impose fresh sanctions if Iran’s govt cracks down forcefully on the demonstrations spreading throughout the country’
Panahi was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1976, to ethnic Persian parents who moved the family back to the home country in 1979. Panahi’s parents were later targeted by the regime and the family was given refugee status in Australia in 1984. Her post was one of many by people living outside Iran with a politically conservative profile. It was also clear that people inside the country were continuing to access Twitter to participate in the protests, despite attempts by the regime to close off access to social media apps like Twitter and messaging apps like Telegram. Use of alternative routes to the internet demonstrated the determination of Iranians to stay connected in order to stay informed and participate in protests in an organised fashion.

Self-admitted researcher on internet infrastructure and Washington, DC, resident Colin Anderson tweeted on 1 January, “Reminder that while the secure messenging [sic] app Signal provides a feature to circumvent filtering, which would offer a safe alternative to the now blocked Telegram, Google prohibits Iranians from using this service.” The tweet came with a link to a page on bulletin board Github titled, ‘Add Iran to censored countries list’ which contains a discussion. On 6 January 2017, participant mrphs had commented in the discussion, “Yes, this has been an issue since the first day that domain fronting was used to bypass censorship. Google for whatever reason has decided to put harsher sanctions than what US [government] imposes on Iranian people.”

Babak Taghvaee (an ethnic Iranian resident of Malta) tweeted at about 7am on 3 January, “Internet is blocked by Iranian Ministry of Telecommunication in several cities of Iran again. Most of citizen journalists can't upload their videos of protests against Islamic regime outside the country.”

What the Panahi tweet also showed was that the protests had quickly assumed a global colouring because of the historical animosity of Iran’s relations with the US and because of its geopolitical ambitions. I have written about Iran several times on this blog, usually by way of book reviews, and I wrote a post on 19 September 2009 at the time of the previous series of political protests in the country. The same problems of verification evident then, when the grievance was over the re-election of Ahmed Ahmadinejad as president, are equally applicable now.

This time it is at least easy to illustrate the international scope of the Iran protests. For example, on 2 January 2018 @iranazadi1395 tweeted something in Arabic accompanied by a graphic showing a tweet by Ivanka Trump that went: “Inspired by the heroism & bravery of the peaceful protesters in #Iran. We must stand by the Iranian people as they seek freedom from tyranny.”

Early in the morning on 3 January, right-wing US commentator Josh Caplan tweeted, “Regime forces guard television station in city of Sari amid fears protesters will overtake airwaves, disrupt state-media propaganda.” The tweet came with a video that had been viewed over 400 times showing the view out the window of a car driving along a road. As the car drives along, military vehicles come into the frame, and there are a large number of them in a line standing stationary on the road facing in the direction opposite to the direction the car with the camera is travelling in.

At 6.13am on 3 January a story appeared on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘Iran’s protests “spontaneous”, US says at the UN’, that contained the following:
The US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has praised the courage of Iranian demonstrators, saying they were spontaneous, not driven by outside forces. 
After she read out social media posts written by Iranians in support of the protests, Haley on Tuesday dismissed Iranian leaders' contention that the protests were designed by Iran's enemies.
At around 7am on 3 January Mostapha Mohamadi, an Iranian human rights activist based in London, tweeted, “Ambassador Nicky Haley Calls for United Nations Security Council Emergency Meeting on Suppression of Iranian People @nikkihaley #UNSC.”

US-based self-admitted conservative commentator Dr Marty Fox tweeted on 2 January, “Obama was quiet. He said the #IranProtests [in 2009] were none of our business while he enabled & FUNDED the terrorist dictators. #PresidentTrump @realDonaldTrump understands the ENEMY and is doing exactly the right thing by supporting the #IranProtesters.” The tweet retweeted one from liberal US commentator and former national security advisor under Barack Obama, Susan Rice: “How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet.” Her tweet contained a link to a story on the NY Times website by Philip Gordon dated 30 December 2017.

Keats (@pulledandtense), a self-admitted New York City resident, countered the conservative approach by tweeting at around 9am on 3 January, “.@realDonaldTrump: How about actually supporting protesters by rescinding travel ban, respecting nuclear deal that helps avg Iranian, and keeping quiet. You have 0 credibility and only make things worse for protesters to placate base who couldn't find Iran on a map.”

And Kahled Beydoun, a law professor living in Detroit, Michigan, tweeted on the morning of 3 January: “Remember: pundits on the Right championing the #IranProtests vilified protests in America, most notably, [Black Lives Matter] protests. Cmon man.”

The international angle was motivated players inside the country in addition to Rouhani. For example, Javad Zarif, a former Iranian minister, tweeted at 4.53am on 3 January: “Iran's security and stability depend on its own people, who — unlike the peoples of Trumps regional ‘bffs’ [best friends]—have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected, and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction.”

Horatio, whose profile gave no clue as to his or her identity, replied to this tweet by saying, “You @JZarif are representing a brutal regime that is source of instability and killing peaceful protesters on the streets only because they ask for their rights and a better life. You can't fool the World anymore with your fake smile while lying.”

Regardless how the protests are playing out overseas, in Iran the situation is clearly fluid even though it’s impossible for the most part for people outside the country to know what is really happening. People are possibly dying at the hands of the regime, or at least being arrested. But how to know for sure? Who is even getting involved in the protests?

On the latter account, Paris-based journalist Sanam Shantyaei tweeted at 5.04am on 2 January:
Young Iranian who was active during the 2009 so-called Green Movement tells me it’s not our crowd this time around. These are lower income protesters. They have nothing to lose. We don’t share the same grievances. We don’t necessarily feel good about them either (1). 
(2) we are actually afraid of losing what we already have as a result of these protests. But these men and women haven’t had a voice up until this point. So this is their chance. They’re damaging property etc. It doesn’t get worse than this. 
(3) But if we put fear aside and if our government deals with this in a smart way, perhaps something positive could come out of these protests. 
(4) Most protests in Iran, since the 1979 revolution, started out in major cities, including Tehran. This time it’s the lower income sector of society in provincial towns. In fact we’re in #Tehran, and numbers are being greatly exaggerated.
Self-admitted president of “Iranian American Majority”, Peter Kohanloo, tweeted in response to these tweets: “Disgusting attempt to divide Iranians from one another. ‘Not our crowd’ is a vile regime reformist talking point.”

Khaved Sharooz, a Canadian, tweeted on 2 January, “The wretched of the earth are fighting against poverty and misery in the #IranProtests. What has been the response of the international left? A random sample of its leading voices @jeremycorbyn = silence @theJagmeetSingh = silence @NaomiAKlein = silence @thenation = silence” The tweet had been liked over 200 times and retweeted 138 times.

As for establishing the number of deaths resulting from the unrest, you had no choice but to believe what was being put out by a variety of sources. Self-admitted Iran native and founding editor of @ForeignDeskNews Lisa Daftari tweeted at around 5am on 3 January, “Armin Sadeghi, 13-year-old shot dead by anti-riot security forces in Khomeini Shahr, Isfahan during protests last night, making death toll at least 22.” The tweet came with an image of a young boy (see below). There is no way to confirm the truth of this assertion, however.

Comité de Soutien aux Droits de l'Homme en Iran (@CSDHI, or Human Rights Support Committee in Iran) tweeted at around 7am on 3 January, “2 janvier: Amir Hussein Papi, adolescent mort des suites des coups de matraque donnés par des agents lors d'une manifestation à Doroud dans l'ouest de l'Iran. infos via les réseaux de la résistance en #Iran.” (Translated: “2 January: Amir Hussein Papi, teenager dead following blows with a baton given by agents at a protest in Doroud in the west of Iran. Information from resistance networks in Iran.”) The tweet came with an image (below). Again, there is no way to verify if this actually happened.

US citizen and resident of North Carolina Michael Fernandez tweeted at about 6.30am on 3 January, “RT LVNancy: Death toll #IranProtests is now at least 30. Including 13 year old, Armin Sadeghi. Protesters have been murdered in #Dorud #Hamadan #Isfahan #Izeh #Nurabad #Qahdrijan #Shahin Shahr, and #Tuyserkan” The tweet came with a photo showing the same face of a young boy aged about 13 wearing a T-shirt as in the tweet mentioned earlier from Lisa Daftari.

Raman Ghavami, a self-admitted resident of both the Middle East and the UK, tweeted on 2 January, “#Iran, Security forces are shooting at the protesters in many cities. What we see here - as I mentioned before - is that the regime has decided to crackdown [on] #Peaceful protesters at any cost. Many wounded but killed hasn't been reported yet.” While the numbers of dead were always hard to verify, you could at least see for certain that his tweet had been retweeted 263 times and been liked 155 times. The frequent use of liking and retweeting to express support for public comments made in English might serve to demonstrate a large number of protesters who have been able to access the internet inside Iran. Or maybe not.

Kelly Jane Torrance, a writer based in Washington, DC, tweeted on 2 January, “Death toll in #IranProtests is now at least 30, I’m told. Protesters have been murdered in Dorud, Hamadan, Isfahan, Izeh, Nurabad, Qahdrijan, Shahin Shahr, and Tuyserkan. Thousands arrested. Info from the network of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).”

Yesterday, Babak Taghvaee tweeted: “People of Gohardasht, #Karaj were protesting against the Islamic regime an hour ago. They are probably still protesting now.” The same day he tweeted, “Family members of arrested protesters sat down in-front of main gate of #Evin prison today protesting against suppression, arrest and torture of their loved ones in #Tehran today evening.” 

This second tweet came with a video that had been viewed 1855 times showing a number of people lying down on the ground and a crowd of onlookers gathering behind them in the street. But it was difficult to know where the videos had come from, and the same person even admitted how hard it has been to verify information coming out of Iran by tweeting later the same day, saying that videos “recorded by citizen journalists” had been fraudulently watermarked by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) and redistributed.

Fraudulent? Surely not. Surely, these people are all on the same side in the conflict. Maryam Rajavi, the self-professed “president-elect” of the country and a member of the NCRI, based in Auvers-sur-Oise, in the north-western suburbs of Paris, tweeted early in the morning of 3 January: 
These uprisings will continue until the clerical regime is overthrown and democracy is established in Iran. This is the only possible way to achieve justice, welfare, democracy, and free elections.
Her tweet came with a colour-washed graphic (see below) showing people standing outside in a crowd, with some of them holding up smartphones and some with their closed fists raised.

She tweeted on the same day, in French, “L’union et la solidarité sont le secret de la victoire. Il faut viser l’ennemi inhumain. Aujourd’hui plus jamais[,] le terrain est propice au renversement des mollahs criminels en #Iran.” (Translation: “Union and solidarity are the secret to victory. We must strangle the inhuman enemy. Today no more[,] the ground is favourable for the overthrow of the criminal mullahs in Iran.”)

There was a number of alternative sources with official-sounding names to choose from. Netherlands-based Ebrahim Hemmantia, a self-admitted presidential candidate of the so-called “Iranian Republic” tweeted on 2 January, “Islamic dictatorship in #Tehran & its pro [Islam] #EU politicians & media allies must realise that ignoring #Iranprotesters & producing fake news will not help anymore. 2018 is going to be a great year, [it’s] going to be [the] #end of Islamic [Republic] in #Iran.” The tweet had an image attached showing a gaudily-illuminated building photographed at night in Iran (below). The white marble-clad monument is in Tehran's Shahyad Square (formerly Azadi Square), and was built in 1971 (during the time of the last shah, before the revolution in 1979) as a representation of Persian culture and to mark the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire.

There were also plenty of alternative news sources vying for the attention of the international audience on Twitter. Website tweeted early on the morning of 3 January, “Iranian Protesters Raise Stakes, Attacking Police Stations.” The tweet came with an image (below).

Ali Hashem, a columnist with @AllMonitor who said he was based in Beirut and Tehran, tweeted on the morning of 2 January, “Thread on #IranProtests 1- Five days after the first spark, it’s obvious that while [protests] are spreading, they’re becoming more violent and this could be seen in the videos shared on social media. In accordance, the government is still caught by surprise.” The tweet had been retweeted 664 times and liked 805 times.

Women were often visible in the protests. Amin Navabi, a resident of Vancouver, Canada, and self-admitted founder of @AtheistRepublic, tweeted on 30 December 2017, “This woman in #Iran took off her #Hijab to protest the mandatory Islamic dress code imposed on Iranian women.” The tweet came with a video showing a woman standing on a wall next to a street with a crowd of people milling around and a yellow pennant or banner waving above her head. But there was no way to verify where the video was taken.

@mashipooyan, an Iran resident, tweeted on 2 January, “Today, I have been protesting here at the University of Tehran without wearing the compulsory veil. Amongst the protesting men and women. Although I was attacked by tear gas, I am still proud of having participated in this protest.”

Some reputable news sources were still in the game, however. American Richard Senneville tweeted at about 9am on 3 January, “Le Président Français @EmmanuelMacron demande de la retenue lors d’une conversation téléphonique avec le Président iranien #Rouhani #Iran.” The tweet translates as: “French President Emmanuel Macron demands restraint in a telephone conversation with Iranian President Roughani.” The tweet came with a link to a Reuters story titled, ‘Macron asks Rouhani to show restraint, minister's visit postponed.’ The story went, in part: 
The statement said Macron had expressed his concern to President Hassan Rouhani over the number of casualties in the six-day-old protests, and told him that freedom of speech and protest must be respected. 
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s planned trip to Tehran later this week was also postponed to a future date, the French presidency said.
CNN International tweeted at 5.17am on 3 January: “Are you protesting in Iran? Tell CNN what you are seeing and why you are speaking out on WhatsApp or Telegram at +1 347-322-0415” The tweet came with a graphic that repeated the basic information already posted. This tweet had been replied to 91 times, and retweeted 159 times.

But to show that nothing to do with this event has been able to go past untouched by critics, @cernocreratives, the account of a news vehicle based in Montreal, Canada, retweeted the CNN tweet with a comment: “A 20 billion dollar news corporation... has ZERO actual news journalists. They have to beg for citizen journalists to do their job. CNN isn’t even pretending to try anymore.”

A tweet appeared at around 12.10pm on 3 January from Californian @RJ_Cal, “@ThomasErdbrink The most knowledgeable & fair reporter out there. He has been based in #Iran for over 10 years. @nytimes.” Erdbrink’s Twitter profile says he is one of the only US reporters in the country and that he has lived there for 10 years. So as the relentless series of tweets continued to animate the hashtag, a number of them easier to verify than the rest, there was some respite available for dedicated news junkies after all. 

And in the end, the irony is that it is the news sources that Donald Trump usually scorns as “fake news” that are still mainly in the game supporting his team on the ground in Iran. Freed from the arcane strictures usually imposed by American identity politics on participants in public debates, everyone was finally on the same page. On the side of democracy. Which is in the end what the whole shemozzle is about.

All timestamps noted in this blogpost are Australian eastern daylight time. All posts from Twitter were isolated using the #IranProtests hashtag.

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