What Washington Can Learn From the Iran Protests

Moving Past American Myths

Protests in Tehran, December 2017. Social Media / Reuters

More than a month has passed since protests in Iran’s northeast metastasized into anti-regime demonstrations across the entire country. This outpouring of discontent, which took the United States almost completely by surprise, should help lay to rest a range of tenuous assumptions about Iranian politics that had become conventional wisdom in Washington—namely, an underestimation of the Iranian people’s willingness to oppose the regime and an overestimation of Iran’s reformers. Now, as Washington weighs how to address the multitude of challenges emanating from Iran, it must also reconsider the foundations of its knowledge about the country.


The first myth the protests put to rest was not something overtly discussed in Washington but rather a background assumption of most private conversations about Iran. This myth held that given the regime’s success in suppressing the Green Movement in the summer of 2009 and beyond, the Iranian people lacked the resolve to continue protesting, making additional widespread demonstrations against the government unlikely. Further, it alleged that the regime was experiencing a boon of popularity among the Iranian people, thanks to rising nationalism, fear of a war-ravaged Middle East, and Iranians’ disdain for the new U.S. administration.

But such an assessment misreads the Iranian people’s century-long struggle for equitable and representative government, which they have not abandoned despite constant disappointment. First, the recent protests nullify by their very existence the myth of Iranian irresolution, since ordinary people—albeit from a somewhat different social stratum than that of the demonstrators from 2009—have risked life and limb to protest Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with chants of “Death to the dictator!” Videos can also be found on social media featuring members of the Basij paramilitary (instrumental in the 2009 clampdown) burning their registration cards as a symbol of dissent. Further signaling their bravery, protesters praised Reza (Shah) Pahlavi, the founder of Iran’s last monarchial dynasty, transgressing the taboo of publicly lauding the ancien régime. Notably, this pro-Pahlavi slogan was repeated in Khomein,

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