BREATHLESS

Just as Trump Cheered Iran Protests, the Supreme Leader Once Cheered Occupy Wall Street

It’s so easy and so wrong to judge social movements from afar. The protests in Iran were important, but not in the ways that those thousands of miles away declared them to be.

Monica Almeida/Reuters

Remember Occupy Wall Street, the 2011 protest movement centered around Zuccotti Park in New York, which began as a reaction to the financial crash?

Here in Iran, it received ecstatic support.

Our news channels covered it incessantly. The young leaders of the movement were heralded as heroes.

The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei predicted the protests would bring down the capitalist system, and there were many here – regime loyalists – who believed it.

A friend in Tehran who worked for a foreign media outlet asked Ali Ramin, then Deputy Minister for Culture and Islamic Guidance (and a fluent German speaker) what he made of Occupy Wall Street.

“American imperialism is collapsing just as the Soviet Empire crumbled,” said Ramin. “Let’s talk once that happens. It will be very soon. America is doomed. Finished. Done.”

Oh the perils of wishful thinking when you’re watching from a long way off.

During the first week of January, the shoe was on the other foot. Angry (and sometimes jubilant) crowds in towns and cities across Iran hit the streets – occupying regional governors’ offices. People allegedly set pictures of the Supreme Leader alight, along with the Iranian flag, which displays the name of Allah across the middle.

In certain quarters of America, these protests received ecstatic support.

Donald Trump himself tweeted, “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. The world is watching!”

But the US hyperventilating over Iran’s protests was just as ill-informed and romantic as Iran’s gushing over Occupy Wall Street six years before. It underlines how little most of those in power in both countries really understand about their so-called arch-enemies.

Here in Iran, we are still parsing what those demos meant. They threw up various strands of emotion: frustration over unemployment and standards of living, and even the lionizing of Iran’s former king, Shah Pahlavi.

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There has been no rigorous and frank analysis, of course. At least not in public.

Instead we are getting dire warnings.

Outlets like Fars News have been looping footage of the uprisings and commentary that warns Iranians not to take their anger to the streets for fear of setting off Syrian-style unrest.

Many members of the middle classes – even reform-minded ones — echoed these warnings. They write in their blogs and on Facebook and Telegram (incidentally still available with VPN) that uprising in Iran could easily lead to the kind of violence and conflict that tore Syria and Iraq apart.

Basically they are saying: “Go home and be quiet. Our current government may be oppressive, corrupt and dictatorial — but it’s better than chaos.”

The reformists support the “will of the people” – but only when it suits them. During the last two presidential elections, they urged people to turn out in huge numbers for a winning candidate to guard Iran against the kind of political instability that convulsed Syria.

That’s the way the establishment and the regime frame our choice: Mayhem or Dictatorship?

Sadly, this false dichotomy is the one our leaders use – time after time – to buy themselves legitimacy.

And even more sadly, it works.