On Thursday January 18, 2018, The SETA Foundation at Washington DC hosted a panel discussion, “Iranian Protests and US Policy on Iran.” Panelists included Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council; Barbara Slavin, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative; Alex Vatanka, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute; and Kadir Ustun, the SETA Foundation at Washington DC’s own Executive Director. The discussion was moderated by Kilic Kanat, the Research Director of The SETA Foundation at Washington DC.
Alex Vatanka, the first speaker, explained the difference between the Green Revolution of 2009, and the protests of 2017-2018. He explained how the chants from the recent protests turned very radical, since they said things such as “death to the regime,” and “death to the dictator.” He also said that even though many people did not go to the streets, that there was a silent majority that stayed at home, but who identified with the protestors. Vatanka explained that this generation of protestors is a younger generation, which did not go through the 1979 Revolution, they are more educated, and many of them were university graduates. He added that their main grievance is unemployment, and people have given up the hope of gradual reform. The younger generations do not have the patience that the older generations had, and they realize nothing substantial is happening in their country. The grievances are fueled by the economic conditions, however, a big issue is also corruption. “The question is, what kind of reform will Khamenei implement and what will the situation be when he leaves?”
Barbara Slavin spoke about the reaction in Washington DC, and how many people expected that the regime would crack down on the protesters in an extremely brutal way and eventually cause the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The speaker explained that the Iranian government had learned lessons from 2009, and this time around they were very careful in the application of force. Several young people “committed suicide” in jail, and three thousand people were thrown in jail, however, they were later released. She pointed out that Khamenei admitted that the people had legitimate grievances and that the government would listen, and that there cannot be a revolution as long as the capital is quiet and until the upper-middle class decides to go into the streets.
Parsi explained that despite the fact that protests have died down, the anger is still there, and there should be expectations that if something is not done, then the protests will be reoccurring. Until a certain point, the protests have been successful, he argued. He mentioned the fact that there were a lot of charities in Iran which conservatives control, and drive a lot of corruption.Parsi also explained that a lot of people were very disappointed on the economy because the only area where sanctions relief worked was in the oil sector. “Regular people do not get money from the oil money, the government does.” He mentioned the deliberate strategy of Trump was that he was very uncertain regarding the nuclear deal, uncertainty is a de facto sanction. Therefore, foreign investors are not signing on Iran, because of the uncertainty that Trump created in the durability of the deal.
Stun focused on the Turkey-Iranian agreements, and spoke about Qatar and the PYD, and how Iran has tried to take advantage of the disconnect between U.S. and Turkey and has come forward with the proposals to help Turkey. Both countries emphasize on keeping the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, and this constitutes the backbone of the negotiations. Ustun said that despite over lapse and convergence in several issues, it became clear to Turkey that it couldn’t work with the U.S. on Syria anymore, so Iran and Turkey are cooperating diplomatically as well. Even though they have agreements, there is still mistrust of Iran since Turkey thinks Iran’s reach into Lebanon, Iraq, should be contained and the U.S. does not have a specific strategy on how to do that. Ustun ended by saying that Turkey will try to cooperate with immediate security issues.