HA Hellyer on the perils of snap commentary, especially when an uprising defies conventional understanding
Why we shouldn't jump to conclusions about what is happening in Iran
As protests rage on in various parts of Iran, there is a rush to jump to conclusions about what has happened in the country and what the rest of the world ought to be doing in response. But just because it is the tempting thing to do, it doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do. That is true probably in Iran, as well as in the region and worldwide.
For partisans of Iranian government hardliners, the conclusion is clear: the protests are a façade, beneath which are "foreign hands" and "external elements". In other words, there is nothing genuine about the demonstrations and the protesters are being stoked by the country’s enemies. It’s an easy conclusion to jump to. And in Iran’s case, the country certainly has many enemies. But denying dissent the legitimacy to ever be legitimate is not a tool of a strong and confident government. It’s the hallmark of tyranny.
We’ve seen this denial many times over the past decade throughout the Arab uprisings. The autocrat cannot tolerate that dissent might actually be genuine, homegrown and not born out of terrorism. Nor can it be dismissed out of hand that one of the factors is the huge investment that Tehran has invested in the atrocious support it has put in Syria to support the Al Assad regime.
But it isn’t just supporters of the Iranian government who are prone to jump to conclusions. Far too many far away from Iranian borders are insisting they know exactly what the protesters all want and that they all want the same thing. It is deeply telling that genuine experts on Iranian politics are loath to be certain about the meaning of the protests, because so much is still as yet unknown. And it is also remarkably revealing that so many of those who are so categorical about the meaning of the protests do not know Farsi, Iran’s main language, nor have spent much time, if any, in Iran.
I remember this sort of approach clearly. It was applied to Egypt, particularly between 2011 and 2013, during the country’s revolutionary period. As an analyst, I engaged with many in London, in Washington and in other western capitals and the discourse was often quite telling. During the uprising itself in 2011, almost exactly seven years ago, there were many on the western right who insisted that the uprising was the work of radicals, and that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s then president, was the source of stability. All too often, such detractors knew little or no Arabic and had spent precious little time in the country. The situation on the ground was complicated and complex, but rather than analyse the country as it was, it was interpreted through a narrow geopolitical lens. Prioritising the experience of Egyptians on the ground was of a secondary concern, if it was one at all.
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This, alas, is the hallmark of much of the analysis and commentary on the region at large. If Iranians or Egyptians interpreted, for example, Chinese politics, few would take their punditry with any degree of seriousness if they displayed no knowledge of Mandarin or failed to prove much familiarity with the country. Experts on French politics from within the UK would not be given much notice, if such experts did not know French or spent virtually no time there, but all too often, these basic standards are not upheld when considering this region.
Iran is not a simple country. It is home to more than 80 million people of several ethnic groups. There are quite possibly many who are unenthusiastic about the ruling system, but its overthrow is not necessarily on the minds of very many. After all, they too live in a region where revolution has led to many unintended consequences, due to a variety of factors. They may not like their government, but they may not be so keen to rush into the unknown either.
What should the international community do? Acting with humility is probably a good place to start. Solidarity with the right of peaceful protesters to engage in civil action without threat of violent retribution is warranted. But it is also warranted irrespective of whether the government is pro-American or anti-American. Such solidarity is a principle, after all. If it is selective according to geopolitics, then solidarity is not a principle, it’s a hypocritical hobby.
In all likelihood, there are a large number of reasons behind the protests in Iran. And their resolution may unfold in any number of different scenarios. But we do have a responsibility to try to understand the situation through the eyes of Iranians on the ground. It is, after all, they who not only understand the situation best – it is they that will have to live with the consequences. For many reasons, inside and outside Iran, one may hope the ruling system may change for the better – fundamentally to respect the innate and fundamental rights of Iranians. But how and when that comes about is going to be an Iranian path.
Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London