Analysis: Iran Protests Different This Time, and More Likely to Succeed

President Donald Trump is warning Iran not to hurt protestors. Illustrative. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran went from hope to despair as the Iranian regime eventually crushed them and terminated an opportunity for freedom in Iran. But almost nine years later in the dark days of winter, a new hope of freedom might just spring out of the midst of that despair.

The latest Iran protests that began in the final days of 2017 don’t have a catchy nickname or even a clear leader, but so far they’re emerging across the country and lighting Twitter ablaze with images and videos.

There are four key differences between this round of protests and those in 2009, and because of them the result could be very different this time around. It also might just result in an outcome somewhat different than hoped.

Different Reasons

The 2009 protests were in response to an apparently rigged election designed to put a regime-backed president back into power instead of a reformist. This time, according to media reports and comments from current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, key reasons for the protests are economic struggles and government corruption.

The different impact of those reasons is stark. While the 2009 election controversy threatened the façade of democracy in the dictator-led Islamic Republic, it was a rather ethereal and symbolic reason. Money to put food on the table is a much more concrete concern.

A lot more Iranians can identify with the economic struggle of today than idyllic Western values in 2009. And because of that, the people involved in the protests appear to be different too.

Different Protestors

Iranian-Israeli author and analyst Meir Javedanfar recently noted a key difference in where the protests have been centered—which also says something about who is protesting. “During the 2009 protests also referred to as “the Green Revolution”, the nucleus of the demonstrations was around Tehran. The latest #Iranprotests so far have been more widespread, meaning a wider range of social and economic groups could be involved,” Javedanfar posted to Twitter last week.

That means not only that the latest public outburst involves different types of people, but it potentially involves more people. One of the key questions back in 2009 was whether or not the revolution could spread far enough and engage enough people to truly threaten the regime. In the end, it did not. This time it could—and they’ll likely have help.

Different Support

In 2009, United States President Barack Obama was criticized for not properly supporting the Iranian protestors. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video posted to Twitter critiqued some European states for their silence in the face of the current protests.

One leader who’s definitely not silent, however, is US President Donald Trump. In just a few tweets Trump has already managed to strike a more forceful tone in supporting the protestors than Obama ever did. Trump reminded the regime on Twitter that “the world is watching” and in a separate tweet specifically said the US would be “watching very closely for human rights violations.”

The US State Department under Trump has even called for regime change. A recent press release quoted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments in June 2017 noting support for “those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government. Those elements are there, certainly as we know.”

That’s a big shift in tone from Obama in 2009. But even with the most powerful nation in the world backing the protestors, the result of the outcry may very well depend not on who’s backing them, but who they end up backing.

Different Leader

In 2009, the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi was a public and clearly identified leader of the revolutionary movement. He’s not been identified as such this time around. In fact, five days into the protests, and no leader has been identified at all.

As a result, one has to wonder if the protests will truly result in regime change, despite reports and videos on Twitter showing chants of “death” to Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While it’s possible that the waves of demonstrators across Iran will ultimately demand a fresh start for the government, if their concerns were initially economic, an economic solution may be all they need to undo the revolutionary fervor.

Combine that with the lack of a clear leader who can make demands for a majority of the protestors and serve as a clear counter to the current Iranian regime leadership, and that is a recipe for a revolution that fizzles out rather than takes over.

Of course, other revolutions in the Islamic world succeeded without a clear replacement leader that united the revolutionaries, such as in Egypt and Libya. But the Egyptian military turned on dictator Hosni Mubarak there, and Europe and the US provided crucial military support in Libya. Without a similar result in Iran, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp paramilitary group loyal to the regime will likely prove too strong to be overthrown.

Even if the latest protests turn into a violent revolution bent on regime change, it could look more like Syria—where a sea of different interests, including ISIS, have fractured the opposition—than Egypt.

Different Result?

Despite all that, the 2009 Green Revolution ultimately resulted in little if any change. Javedanfar posted to Twitter that this time that cannot be the case. “Even if the #Iranprotests were to end, leadership will have to IMMEDIATELY start thinking about deep changes. Why? Bcs political games+corrupt political interests are ruining: #Iran economy, environment, social stability and the VERY legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s existence,” tweeted the Iranian expert.

Furthermore, if the US gets involved militarily or if the traditional military in Iran is less loyal to the regime than believed, perhaps the Islamic Republic will be shaken after all.

For now, things are different than they were in the 2009 failure. And that’s a place to start.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, January 1, 2018)

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