Iran’s protesters reflect the Middle East’s abiding anger against injustice
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Nibras Kazimi is an Iraq expert at the Atlantic Council. This version has been updated.
Students in Tehran stage a protest on Tuesday. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
David Ignatius
Jan. 15, 2020 at 4:48 p.m. MST
When Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed nearly two weeks ago, his death might have drawn the curtain on the Iranian revolution that he symbolized.

The Iranian regime is far from finished but, from here on, it will maintain power through thugs and autocrats who lack Soleimani’s revolutionary appeal. Maybe that’s what the Iranian streets are telling us: The masses marched in mourning for Soleimani but, within days, the people were denouncing a regime that shot down a plane carrying dozens of young Iranians and then lied about it.

Grief over Soleimani and anger at the regime may be two sides of the same coin: Soleimani had a public image as a man of humble origins, and his handlers tried in recent months to contrast him with the corrupt “authorities” who are mismanaging Iran. The regime hoped to use public sadness over his death to regenerate the revolution, but that has visibly failed this week.

Next come the gray men: Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, is described by Iran experts as a tough shadow warrior who has run operations abroad and helped suppress domestic protests at home. Ebrahim Raisi, the likely successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lacks distinction as a religious scholar or spiritual leader. He’s a lawyer, justice minister and former prosecutor.

A vibrant protest movement is visible in Iran and across the Middle East — but it isn’t calling for Islamic revolution, much less the tired misrule of the mullahs. It’s a bottom-up rebellion against the corrupt elites who rule Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. The Iraqi version of this movement is sometimes called “madaniyya,” which Nibras Kazimi, an Iraq expert, translates as a call for civic rebirth. The autocrats have tried everywhere to crush or manipulate this movement, but it persists.

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned by the regime, quotes some slogans chanted this week by students protesting the downing of a Ukrainian airliner that carried many fellow students. “You’ve Killed Our Geniuses and Replaced them with Mullahs,” read one banner. Bahari says protesters use the term “Bi Sharaf” to describe Khamenei and other officials, a phrase that he says evokes “someone who has no conscience, morals or values.”

Videos and other reporting gathered by Iran Wire, the website Bahari edits, convey the popular anger: At Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, protesters shouted Monday: “We do not want coward directors.” At the Isfahan University of Technology, students chanted: “Cannon, tank, explosives, no longer useful; mullahs should go.” At the University of Kurdistan in Sanandaj, protesters defied authorities: “We are so sick of crime, why should we be afraid?”

Even the official news organizations in Iran, once reliable mouthpieces of the regime, seem fed up. After official statements about the crash of the Ukrainian passenger jet were revealed as false, the state-run newspaper Bahar ran a piece titled, “Lying and insisting on secrecy is unforgivable.” The article asked the telling question: “What else did they hide or were able to conceal?”

This movement lacks leaders or a clearly defined goal, but it conveys a palpable sense of disgust and anger — and a willingness to defy the authorities. Several Iranian journalists have resigned in protest against the propaganda machine. The Iranian state news agency quoted a Tehran journalists’ association statement: “What endangers this society right now is not only missiles or military attacks but a lack of free media.”

The popular yearning for change, and the brutal tactics that governments have used to suppress protest, have been the dominant themes of the Middle East for the past decade. We sometimes miss that continuity: Popular rage has sometimes taken grotesque forms, as with the Islamic State, but the abiding theme is anger against injustice and theft by autocratic leaders.

The Trump administration wobbles in and out of a coherent approach to this region. President Trump embodies the American public’s allergic reaction to the Middle East after two decades of war, but his aides have wisely kept him from pell-mell retreat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Hanging tough seems to have worked in Iraq; the Iraqi parliament has recessed for six weeks with only a nonbinding resolution demanding U.S. troop withdrawal on the books.

The United States has been trying to contain the Iranian revolution since 1979, with little to show for all our money and manipulation. But if you listen now, you can hear the Iranian engine sputtering and wheezing. It’s a revolution that has run out of positive energy, and now operates on violence, fear and repression.
Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.