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How thousands of Iranians went from mourning a general to protesting the regime, in a week

“The positions are not mutually exclusive.”

Protesters fill a street during an anti-government demonstration in Tehran, Iran.
An anti-government protest in Tehran on January 14, 2020. Demonstrations erupted after Iran admitted to unintentionally shooting down a passenger jet last week.
Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Protests erupted in Iran over the weekend as vigils to mourn the 176 victims of the Ukrainian jet crash transformed into anti-government demonstrations.

The Iranian government had tried to conceal that its military accidentally shot down the plane, killing all on board. When it finally admitted its culpability, protesters reacted with rage and fury.

It shattered the perception of national unity that seemed to exist last week, when thousands of Iranians turned out to mourn the death of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful general killed in a US targeted strike.

But neither is a full picture of Iran. Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s very possible the same people who came out to mourn Soleimani also protested the regime for its handling of the Ukrainian airline tragedy.

That’s because the underlying problems plaguing Iran — corruption, economic stagnation, and mismanagement — didn’t abate after Soleimani’s assassination. The same issues that sparked massive protests in November continued to boil under the surface. The deaths of 176 airline passengers, and the government’s attempt to conceal its involvement in them, set them off again.

I spoke with Geranmayeh about what the protests might mean and how the regime is responding. And since Iran news never stops, I threw in a question or two about some of the other developments this week.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

What was your first impression when these anti-government demonstrations erupted?

Ellie Geranmayeh

From May 2017 onward, Iran has experienced a phase of quite frequent protests across the country, where they can be triggered by small things. From the government budget, as happened in 2017, to much bigger issues that affect millions of ordinary Iranians, like the fuel hikes that we had back in November, to then more devastating, tragic national events like this shooting of a passenger airline.

A lot of people, particularly in November, myself included, predicted that unless there are some systematic reforms in the way the country and the economy is managed, there are going to be quite frequent cycles of protest inside Iran, triggered from anything small to anything big.

These vigils very quickly turned into protests that then — I think even more quickly than the last two big rounds of protest inside the country — turned into slogans that were anti-establishment, targeting Iran’s supreme leader within hours of the protests starting.

Previously, it would take at least a couple days for the more radical slogans to emerge, but now there is no inhibition about going directly to what many inside the country are seeing as the source of the problem, which is the Iranian political establishment at large.

Jen Kirby

And how does that sit with the Iranian regime?

Ellie Geranmayeh

What I think will be more interesting to watch is how the security apparatus responds to the protesters if they do continue over a period of days or weeks. In November, it did culminate in a very brutal crackdown, which was a big shift from the way the state authorities responded to the protests in the country back in 2017 and 2018, where they were largely allowed to continue and allowed to more or less fizzle out.

In November, we saw reports of huge numbers of protesters killed and arrested. This time around, I think there has been some statement [from the top] to Iranian officials that they want a restrained response from the security forces.

What we’re starting to see at the moment is a number of high-profile arrests across the country. Some people have been released, including Robert Macaire, the British ambassador, who was involved in that momentary detention. It’s unclear if others have been or not. So we’ll have to see if security forces respond with a very heavy fist as they did back in November.

Also, I’d put in parentheses that one the biggest shifts we’re seeing in this round of protests following the shooting down of the plane is that an increasing number of supporters of the [regime] are coming out, accepting responsibility, accepting that mistakes were made, accepting that people would be allowed to protest and demonstrate their anger, and accepting that there was a total mismanagement that is unforgivable that has culminated in this event.

Jen Kirby

What might that mean for the political leadership in Iran?

Ellie Geranmayeh

Some have been saying that this is a watershed moment for the political leadership, that this should be a wake-up, that they need to now expand the political space in the country — to basically allow some breathing room for the general public.

All of this is happening as there are parliamentary elections scheduled in Iran next month. And, so far, we’re not seeing great indicators that the leadership in the country is actually expanding that political space, because we’ve had an initial review of candidates that are allowed to run, and several high-profile reformist figures have been disqualified from running.

There is still a space of time when they could appeal and maybe change that decision. But it’s a good indication that some of the more established defenders of the Islamic Republic are not seeing what’s happened as a wake-up call that they need to actually have a national dialogue process, that there needs to be greater involvement of opposing views, rather than restricting the space further.

But we’ll see.

Jen Kirby

How might the death of Soleimani affect those elections?

Ellie Geranmayeh

Let’s go back one more step. After November, there was a lot of concern that there would be an extremely low turnout at the elections in February. After Qassem Soleimani’s death, and the massive turnout at his funeral — which I think took a lot of people by surprise — there was a sense that, okay, maybe this moment of nationalism will unify people around the flag and could boost voter turnout in the elections, which is traditionally used by Iran’s leadership to show legitimacy of their governance.

But now, I think after this passenger plane was shot down, it risks reverting back to an extremely low political participation, and people will look to the streets as the place to actually send messages to their leadership rather than through the ballot box.

Jen Kirby

Who is participating in these recent protests?

Ellie Geranmayeh

It’s being largely led by university students in the major cities, unlike the protests in November, which was mostly the lower economic social base in Iran that was coming out to protest in multiple cities — more than 30 provinces, as Iranian officials said.

That could change. Over time, if these protests are allowed to continue, other factions of the society may well join in.

But again, I think that if there is a real threat felt by the security apparatus, there will be an extremely repressive response to these protests, and we should wait and see if that transpires, or see if protest is allowed, or if it might actually lead to some rethinking by the political establishment at the top.

Unfortunately, I remain a bit pessimistic that a) these protests are going to be allowed to grow into mass scale, and b) even if they’re allowed to continue without a crackdown, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of peer leadership for these protests in the way that, for example, in 2009, the so-called Green Movement had a clear leader with clear demands. That’s likely to inhibit their capacity to actually sustain themselves.

And I’m also pessimistic, from what we’re seeing so far, that there is going to be a shake-up of the political leadership in terms of creating some sort of a relaxation or civil political freedom at a time when Iran is facing incredible external pressures and incredible internal pressures. There are some figures inside the country that are trying to push for that, but right now, we’re not seeing indications that the leadership is moving toward that direction.

Jen Kirby

What does seem odd about these protests is how swiftly the mood in Iran seemed to change. Last week there looked to be a national outpouring for Soleimani’s funeral. Now, protests. Why that whiplash, so to speak?

Ellie Geranmayeh

The short time frame between the two has really undermined the Iranian position of strength it may have wanted to demonstrate to the Americans.

But I’m not surprised that eventually this whiplash came, though it came much quicker than it perhaps otherwise would have been. It was only a matter of time before some event would have triggered that whiplash, because the leadership has done very little to address the underlying causes of the protests in the country. It was a matter of when, not if.

Iran is a country of over 80 million people from diverse social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. So it’s very plausible that many of the same people that came out into the street for Soleimani’s funeral may have also come out on the street either in the November protests or in what we’re seeing happen in the country now.

I think that’s because a lot of the people who turned out for Soleimani were there to express the sentiment of nationalism, rather than necessarily support for the really elite.

The positions are not mutually exclusive, of feeling both frustrated at the US aggression but also frustrated at the mismanagement [and] corruption taking place in the country. That’s one thing.

The second thing is, again, because of this diversity and the large population, you have polarized positions within the population. About 16 million or so people in the last presidential election turned out to vote for one of the more hardline candidates.

There is a base for the hardline stance in the country. It might not be the biggest proportion of the country, but I don’t think we can deny that they exist — that support for the more hardline position is somehow obsolete.

Jen Kirby

After at first denying responsibility, the Iranian government admitted that it shot down the jet. It also arrested the people responsible. Does this signal some sort of opening — similar to the political space you were mentioning?

Ellie Geranmayeh

Look, the types of changes that Iran will require are systematic, and they’re not going to happen overnight.

On the one hand, it is unprecedented for senior IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] figures to come out and publicly take ownership and apologize for mistakes. I don’t remember a time when that’s ever happened, at least in my lifetime looking at the country.

The fact that they are making these arrests and they said that there will be some sort of a military court, I think these are all positive steps that could get somewhere. And also I should add the fact that Iran is now being much more open with international parties to conduct the investigation.

These are all positive steps, but at the same time, for every step that’s going forward there’s maybe one or two steps going backward. We’ve had these first steps in disqualifying prominent reformist figures in the country from running for election. You’ve had also arrests of political, cultural activists in the country. And you’re not seeing what a lot of people on the streets are calling for, which is resignations of some of the high-level people in the country that should be held, in their view, accountable for what happened.

Some low-level arrests of people who may have have pressed the button or may have not followed protocol is not going to really remove the shadow of frequent protests from the country. There is a sense on social media, “Okay, well, that doesn’t quite cut it. You can apologize all you want, but we want action. And we want to see you really taking accountability for what’s happened.”

So even if there are some steps made to calm the current unrest we’re seeing in the country, there’s going to have to be a road map that explains to the public how the government can complete some of the more systematic changes that are required to tackle the economic problems, tackle the mismanagement, tackle the corruption in the country, and open up the political space.

And these are things that in any country could take years and decades. But what is necessary now is for the Iranian leadership to communicate a road map to the public about how it gets there. Right now we’re not seeing indications of that.

Ultimately, the final call is made by the supreme leader. And so far, there has been a resistance by the more powerful factions toward making those systematic reforms. But maybe there’s hope this tragic incident may unfold the pathway toward that kind of road map for systematic change and reform.

Jen Kirby

I wonder, particularly on the economy, if the regime is hemmed in a bit — or limited in what it can do — because of sanctions, including the United States’ campaign of maximum pressure?

Ellie Geranmayeh

There is undoubtedly significant external pressure that’s gotten Iran where it is. It’s a country that for four decades has been under increasing US sanctions. It has for periods of time been in severe diplomatic isolation, as well as a long extended period of direct conflict with Saddam Hussein in Iraq [in the 1980s].

After the 1979 revolution, within a year, you had the start of an eight-year war. And even in the post-conflict reconstruction phase, Iran was facing sanctions after sanctions from the United States.

Then you had this moderation project that was being led by President Hassan Rouhani — which was about having a certain degree of compromise with the United States as this kind of middle way or sweet spot, where some of the hardliners in the country could still hold on to the Islamic parts of the revolution, while the republican part of the revolution could also have some space to grow.

But unfortunately, given the position President Donald Trump has taken, we’ll never know if that position of moderation could have succeeded or not because it faced a major setback.

And the whole theory behind that project of moderation was to essentially have Iran’s economic growth being the engine of reform in the country. By connecting Iran to international institutions, you would basically factor in the process of reforms that Iran required. We saw that even happening when the nuclear deal was signed, when there was a push to bring Iran’s banking and financial regulations up to international standards.

There were steps being set in motion within the first year and a half of the 2015 nuclear deal that indicated that Iran was on its way to first economic reforms and then hopefully political reforms. But unfortunately, because of the current US stance, we’ll never know if that project could have been successful or not.

Jen Kirby

And I guess that’s a good place to pivot to the announcement this week that the Western European countries that were part of the nuclear deal — Britain, France, and Germany — threatened sanctions back on Iran after it said it would no longer abide by the deal after Soleimani’s death. What is the endgame here for the so-called E3 countries?

Ellie Geranmayeh

It’s been in the cards for a few months now. The E3 governments have been consulting on how to respond to the fact that the United States has left the deal. They were unable to provide Iran with an economic package, which would have compensated for the US position. And Iran’s response has been a gradual withdrawal from its obligations, although it has made very clear that it still considered itself part of the nuclear deal.

The Europeans really don’t have any good options. So they’ve decided that the dispute resolution mechanism, which is baked into the Iran nuclear deal, is the best way forward. And basically nobody right now is talking about this process leading into United Nations Security Council, which would snap back if they cannot come to a resolution.

This has certain costs and certain benefits. On the benefits side, the Europeans are trying to use the dispute resolution mechanism as an opportunity to find a diplomatic solution out of the current stalemate with Iran. The focus will be on creating a new environment with Iran to try and find some sort of an agreement which will at least prevent Iran from furthering its nuclear program — although on paper, the intention is to have Iran go back to full compliance with the terms of the deal.

There may be some space where there can actually be a breakthrough by using this process. If the Europeans are able and willing to actually put together some sort of an economic package — perhaps with the Russians and the Chinese — and if they convince the White House that they should be given some flexibility on US sanctions to implement that economic package, then that could also allow Iran to go back to full compliance with the nuclear deal and hold off from further military escalation with the United States.

That’s the most optimistic reading of what could happen. The more likely reading is that the Europeans will momentarily win some points with Washington for acting tough toward Iran, but it won’t be enough. That the US administration will not be satisfied by this news and will want the Europeans to join its maximum-pressure campaign.

We’ve had three years of the Trump administration, where the Europeans have unsuccessfully attempted to get the US on board with some sort of a multilateral negotiation with the Iranians. I don’t see indications so far that President Trump’s prepared to change his mind and take this step. But I’ll caveat that by saying with Trump, you never know.

Jen Kirby

And what’s the downside of this plan?

Ellie Geranmayeh

There are two other risks associated with this. One is that somewhere along this process, something happens either on the nuclear issue or on the regional issue. For example, we have something else go pop in the region, some sort of escalation that makes it extremely difficult to avoid the process reaching the United Nations Security Council.

By mutual agreement, all the parties to the Iran nuclear deal can contain the dispute resolution process within the framework of the deal before it has to go to the UN. But some external or even nuclear-related event could basically force one of the parties — and I would say maybe the weakest link here is the United Kingdom — to say, “Okay, enough is enough. We’re pushing this to the UN Security Council.” That basically reduces the scope and space for diplomatic initiatives.

And finally, the Europeans don’t really know how Iran is going to react in the coming months, as there could be further escalation with the United States. If Iran feels that the Europeans are pressuring and cornering the country, we may actually get the opposite from Iran, which is that Iran actually expands its nuclear activity beyond what it is now, kicks out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and makes the situation much more of a security dilemma to the Europeans than it is currently.

So this is a gamble that has been taken in terms of blowback risk. The E3 wants to focus on diplomatic initiatives that could result in bringing Iran and the United States to some sort of a negotiation track centered around the nuclear issue.

But, as I said, the chances of that succeeding with Trump are thin. The chances of any Iranian leader shaking hands with President Trump right now are close to zero after the assassination against Soleimani.

In reality, what may end up happening is that through this mechanism, the Europeans will end up just buying time until the November elections to keep the outer shell of the nuclear deal in place. Even though from the inside it’s being hollowed out.

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