Tehran protest December 2017. Photo: Flickr Commons

When putting the recent Iranian protests into a historical context, and considering social conditions, how the media promoted these events, and US policy toward Iran, it appears that there was a “gray zone” of opportunity for Iranians – and for external interests.

Ripe and ready for social unrest

There is evidence that genuine frustration fueled the protests. Considering that Iran needs infrastructure projects to get underway and foreign direct investment (FDI) before widespread prosperity can take hold, an affluent population was never going to become a reality very quickly. Iranians presumed that once Iran’s assets were unfrozen, as part of the agreement between the US and Tehran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), they would all swiftly benefit.

However, the US has continued to impose sanctions outside of the JCPOA, which creates uncertainty for large corporations considering entering Iran. Iran’s domestic laws also ensure a state-majority share in all corporations wanting to do business there, which stymies FDI.

Feeding the frustration was President Hassan Rouhani’s budget proposal to cut a US$90 monthly stipend, enjoyed by 90% of Iranians, because more than 60% of Iran’s economy is state-based and dependent on subsidies and tariffs.

Unemployment remains high largely because of US sanctions, yet Iran’s poverty rate fell to around 8.1% by 2013, according to the World Bank, versus the United States’ 14% or the 55% levels seen under Iran’s shah.

So the protests were also a result of foreign pressure affecting the lives of Iranians. As well, the idea that the protests were hijacked by foreign actors is plausible in the context of historical events, publicly stated acrimony, and continuous provocative US and Israeli policy.

Anglo-American conspiracy

In 1951, Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh revoked concessions given to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and nationalized the oil industry. This put the Americans on edge and enraged the British. Together they conspired to topple Mosaddegh under a plan called TPAJAX.

In August 1953, US intelligence operative Kermit Roosevelt Jr and General Norman Schwarzkopf entered Iran with millions of US dollars to fund operations portraying Mosaddegh as a communist

In August 1953, US intelligence operative Kermit Roosevelt Jr, acting under the alias of James Lockbridge, and General Norman Schwarzkopf entered Iran with millions of US dollars to fund operations portraying Mosaddegh as a communist. They met with the shah, urging him to replace Mosaddegh with General Fazlollah Zahedi.

The first assault by imperial soldiers on Mosaddegh’s residence failed, prolonging Zahedi’s sheltering at the US Embassy and causing the Shah to flee to Baghdad. Roosevelt then hired large crowds to act as communists and told them to loot and pillage throughout Tehran. They marched on Mosaddegh’s residence in a second assault and, supported by imperial troops with Sherman tanks, bazookas, and artillery succeeded at a cost of 300 lives in securing Mosaddegh’s surrender.

Roosevelt and Schwarzkopf used what we can label as “rent-a-crowds.” This tactic is still used at home and abroad to bolster the ranks of supporters, and also of protesters. In 1950s Iran, Schwarzkopf used rent-a-crowd protesters to attempt to storm Mosaddegh’s residence. Many of those killed were reportedly found to have US dollars in their pockets. They had been paid to act as “enraged protesters.”

Old tactics, new century

Footage of the recent protests raised suspicions about what was really going on. The protesters stuck to rural areas and tried to instigate an armed uprising, attacking police stations. Where did the protesters get firearms from, considering such weapons are not ubiquitous in Iran as they are in the US? Similar actions didn’t occur in working-class Tehran, which would have been indicative of true social unrest.

This stinks of “death squad” tactics, much like what occurred in Syria after Robert Stephen Ford was appointed as US ambassador to Damascus in January 2011. He was an underling of John Negroponte, the historic sponsor of death squads in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Of course, US corporate media supported the Iranian protests as being “in the name of freedom.” In fact, the activity shamelessly supports US interests, as it has been supporting the MEK (People’s Mujahideen Organization) or shah loyalists, who are substantially more conservative than Iran’s “Principlists,” who are widely referred to as hardliners by US media.

The protests originated in Mashhad, a city controlled by Ebrahim Raisi, an ally of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s curious, because that region is religious, and not affiliated with the social movements that inspired the Green Revolution. The protests were perhaps originally goaded by the Principlists (socially conservative but economically progressive), and antagonistically directed toward the “Reformists” (economically conservative but socially progressive).

In New American Century, Iran is still the prize

At the dawn of the 21st century, Iran was still a target of the US, as confirmed by retired General Wesley Clark, who was told that the US was going to war with seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

In 2008, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh discovered a plan suggested by US vice-president Dick Cheney to build Iranian PT boats and deploy Navy SEALs in them to attack a US ship moving through the Strait of Hormuz, thus provoking another false ‘’Gulf of Tonkin” incident.

Allying with Washington, Israel’s political right has long sought a US military incursion into Iran, which only increased after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s exaggerations about the Iranian nuclear weapons program that were even refuted by Mossad

Repeatedly, the US seems to have sought, in collaboration with Israel, to interfere with Iran through cyber-warfare, utilizing the MEK for assassinations, and derisively advocating for intervention to “liberate” the Iranian people. This “liberation” idea does not stem from an altruistic desire to help the Iranian people, just as it wasn’t about “liberating” Libya, a once affluent African nation that US President Donald Trump likes to call a “shithole.”

Trump positioned his public views on Iran nicely when he said:

The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos. The longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.

It’s a rogue state according to US labeling, but not others’. This is the same belligerent rhetoric used before vilified regimes are ameliorated by US interference.

Another ‘Path to Persia’

Recently, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported the American-authorized Netanyahu government’s wishes to assassinate Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force. Not that Israel needs permission, but such a target would result in Iran’s ire, and Israel likes to feel supported when it takes lethal action not against Palestinians, but against military commanders of a nation of 80 million.

This is an indication of a staunch policy change under the Trump administration. In fact, on December 12 last year, the US signed a “far-reaching joint memorandum of understanding” with Israel. This implemented four joint US/Israeli intelligence and defense teams to target Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria; Iran’s nuclear program through political and intelligence assets; its ballistic-missile program; and any conflict with Iran, especially through Hezbollah.

Two days after this MoU was signed, the first reports of Iranian anti-government protests began. This coincidental occurrence was just an innocent and fortuitous set of circumstances, right? Or was it the first in a new phase of gray-zone operations inside Iran? The latter seems well within the realms of possibility considering Michael “Ayatollah Mike”  D’Andrea is leading US-Iranian operations.

A ‘gray’ opportunity for Iran

Gray operations are hostile actions that negate the likelihood of an adversary being blamed for full military escalation but enable consistent ambiguous asymmetrical operations that leave the target unsure how to respond.

The Economist says China, Russia, and Iran use these tactics in Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. And yes, that’s true. In the Middle East, Iran has done this to make a US intervention into Iran or Syria more costly. However, the magazine’s January report either omitted or ignored the United States’ use of these tactics. The Iranian protests seem like one such operation missed by The Economist.

Whether the protests were hijacked or not, they were an opportunity for Iran as well as its adversaries. There are many legitimate grievances in Iranian society providing genuine foundations for unrest because Iranians are hungry for prosperity and want to open up their country and build a society not solely based on Islam, which cannibalized its identity in its resistance to Anglo-American imperialism.

Yes, any social movement in Iran could be exploited by foreign actors. However, the protests were positive in that they revealed that semi-theocratic Iran is slowly allowing more freedoms. An Iran that shows itself not to be the barbarous monster it’s labeled as holds more promise as a Middle East hegemon than its fully theocratic monarchical neighbor, Saudi Arabia, or even, to some degree, an apartheid-based, totalitarian democracy in Israel.

This is the gray opportunity – without being seized upon by foreigners – that could further promote tolerance, and open discussion, in this prominent nation and challenge Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabism.

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Andrew Brennan

Andrew Brennan is a dual Irish/American citizen who was educated in Ireland. He holds two Master of Arts degrees from the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has experience in radio, research, and domestic television, and also currently contributes to Forbes and Global Times.

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