February 8, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1373

The Popular Uprising In Iran 2017-2018: The Role Played By President Rohani And The Reformists

February 8, 2018 | By A. Savyon and U. Kafash*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1373


Political elements in the West are framing the December 2017-January 2018 popular uprising in Iran as a clash of Iran's reformist and pragmatic camps – the latter led by Iranian President Hassan Rohani – with the Iranian regime's ideological circles. They have advised aiding President Rohani by lifting the rest of the U.S. sanctions against Iran, levelled because of the Iranian regime's support for terrorism outside its borders and its human rights violations within them, in order to allow Rohani to work for the welfare of the people and to strengthen the pragmatic and reformist camps in Iran. This interpretation of the events is fundamentally wrong.

The protestors in last month's uprising shouted slogans not only against Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Iranian revolutionary regime, but also against President Rohani and the reformists. Thus, it is appropriate to examine the role played in the uprising by President Rohani, who represents the pragmatic stream, and by the reformists in the country, who have been excluded from power in recent years on Khamenei's instructions.

Pragmatic President Rohani – Does He Serve The People Or The Regime?

After his reelection to a second term in May 2017, even before his new government was sworn it, Rohani, in his capacity as president, reconciled with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in July 2017, and started defending it in various forums, both to the Iranian people and to the U.S. administration. This, in a bid to prevent it from being designated a terrorist organization, and to make it possible for the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global body that sets the standard for anti-money laundering and for combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT),[1] to continue the suspension of measures against it. Rohani even publicly expressed support for the Iranian regime's policy of expansion in the Middle East, implemented by the IRGC. All this is a clear reversal of positions he expressed openly against the IRGC during his first term, while Hashemi Rafsanjani, his political and spiritual mentor, was alive and was expressing criticism of the IRGC and Khamenei.

On July 24, 2017, Rohani met with several IRGC commanders, among them Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, IRGC commander Ali Jafari, IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, and Basij commander Brig. Gen. Gholamhossein Gheybparvar. According to a report on the website of the presidency, Rohani thanked the IRGC for its efforts and said that unity must be preserved in order to actualize Khamenei's orders. He called on all institutions to act transparently, to satisfy the people, to utilize the newest technology, and to strengthen the military power of the IRGC and the army, so as to increase national security. IRGC commander Jafari congratulated Rohani on his presidential win, and noted that the IRGC was willing to cooperate with the Rohani government in every way.[2]

An example of the reversal of Rohani's positions was his February 4, 2018 statements at an inaugural ceremony for 10 new museums commemorating the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in which he asserted the need to strengthen Iran's military capability. These statements contrasted with statements by Rafsanjani in 2016 in which he depicted the current era as one "of talks and not of missiles," and maintained that the country should be following the example of Germany and Japan, which have developed civilian industries, as opposed to military industries.[3] Rohani's remarks were similar in spirit to remarks by Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the Iranian daily Kayhan, who is close to the ideological camp and harshly critical of Rohani and his government. Rohani said: "We must strengthen our national might, and defense capability is part of our military capability... Everyone threatens everyone else... America impudently threatens Russia with its new atomic weapons. In a situation like this, can any particular people call this an era of peace, brotherhood, and coexistence? [Can it say] that we aren't in need of military might as we were in the past? We always need military might, and as long as there are threats against us, we must strengthen our defensive power; we must be so strong that the enemy will not dare to attack, or we must prompt the enemy to give up and to internalize [the fact that] he will pay a heavy price if he attacks. Our fighters have sacrificed their lives in friendly countries [Syria and Iraq] in order to defend the Muslims [there], demonstrating that the spirit of sacrifice and resistance against our enemies is still alive."[4]

Rohani's presidential victory is presented to the West as a public mandate for a progressive policy and development in Iran, while in fact President Rohani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif defend and support Iran's territorial expansion in the region, as well as the exporting of the Islamic Revolution – both declared objectives of the regime and the IRGC.[5]

In light of President Trump's attempt to have the IRGC added to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, which would have imposed harsh economic sanctions against it, Rohani said at the October 11, 2017 government meeting: "If America wants to make its next mistake and to take measures against the IRGC, then it will be making a mistake within a mistake. The IRGC is not only a military unit; the IRGC is in the people's heart, and in dangerous days, it will protect our national interests. Not only is the IRGC beloved by the Iranian people, it also beloved by the Iraqi people, because it saved Baghdad and Erbil. It is also beloved by the people in Damascus and Syria, because it saved Damascus. And it is also beloved in Lebanon, because it supported its honor and its independence. The IRGC has always aided the oppressed and opposed the terrorists... The army, the IRGC, and the Basij are never separate from the people, and are always standing by their side. There is no disagreement among our parties with respect to fighting the plots of the enemy. We are all united and stand at the same front."[6]

Two days later, on October 13, 2017, President Rohani announced live on Iranian television: "The IRGC, the Iranian people, the people in Iraq, the people in Syria, the people in Yemen, and the people in the region fight and stand firm against the terrorist groups created by America – as admitted by Trump himself – and will not rest until they destroy them.

"The IRGC is a powerful body. The Iranian people always stand with the IRGC and the IRGC always stands with the people, and as it did [during] the [Iran-Iraq] war that was imposed [upon us], the IRGC defends Iran... The IRGC stood against the aggressors [then]; today too the IRGC responds and will continue to answer the call from the oppressed people in the region. Who is it that is corrupt? The IRGC? Or the [American] administration and [its] armed forces that have always invested efforts in undermining the independence of the people in this region?[7]

Tweet by Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in support of the IRGC, after President Trump refrained from designating it a foreign terrorist organization (, October 14, 2017)

What Rohani's about-face means is that the president and the pragmatic political camp are not serving the people, but rather the regime, and that they are advocating for it in the international arena – just as the Basij serves the regime within Iran and the IRGC ensures its survival and its territorial expansion. President Rohani, the head of the pragmatic-reformist camp, is the own flesh and blood of the regime of the Islamic Revolution. It should also be emphasized that Rohani does not have the capability, the tools or the power apparatuses to implement the ideological agenda he presented during his campaign, when he focused on human rights, rapprochement with the West, foreign investment to boost the economy, freeing political prisoners, press freedom, and the like.

In this context, the JCPOA nuclear deal should also not be seen as a move to serve the people, but as a means to ensure the survival of the regime, and to significantly reduce the possibility of an attack on Iran by a Western element or by Israel.[8] The JCPOA, billed by pragmatic camp representatives Rohani and Zarif as an achievement made possible by those who voted for Rohani in 2013,[9] and as serving the people and promoting the lifting of sanctions, foreign investment, and domestic development, was not aimed at this at all, because Khamenei, who was involved in all stages of the JCPOA as well as in its approval, bans foreign investment and cooperation with the West and rejects any developmental assistance for the country. Khamenei insists that the economic woes of the Iranian public must be solved with the "resistance economy," that is, with self-reliance and rejection of economic cooperation with the West, including foreign investment in Iran. Iran's nuclear status, secured for Khamenei by the Obama administration in the JCPOA, with European support, allows Khamenei to continue oppressing the Iranian people while at the same time pursuing territorial expansion and exporting the Islamic Revolution across the region.

President Rohani himself has justified his actions, in light of accusations by the ideological camp that he is to blame for the failed economic administration that sparked the uprising. He explained to Majlis committee chairmen that over half of the government's budget – 200 billion of its 360 billion toman[10] – is controlled not by him but by the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC.

The Betrayal Of The Reformist Stream – From Non-Support For Protestors To Support For Khamenei Regime

The leaders of the reformist parties outlawed by Khamenei, and prominent intellectuals from Iran's reform movement, would have been expected, if not to actually join the uprising, at least to express support for its calls for political freedom, and for the lifting of the requirement that women wear Islamic garb. But this did not happen. The leading reformists actually lined up with the regime and condemned the young Iranians who were protesting.  

Former president Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, who is banned by the regime from giving interviews or from leaving Iran, reiterated the regime's position vis-à-vis the protestors at a political conference of the reformist Rouhaniyun-e Mobarez party, and even accused the protestors of murder: "[They] are opportunistic agents and disturbers of the peace, who are implementing the criminal goals of the enemy by disrupting order and security, destroying public property, denigrating the values of the sacred religion and nation, and even murdering innocent people." These statements in support of the regime were tweeted by the BBC:

Tweet by BBC Persian, January 2, 2018. (

On January 2, 2018, Ataollah Mohajerani, a reformist minister in Khatami's government and a leading intellectual of the reform movement, tweeted: "The BBC and VOA are covering the protests fervidly and noisily. If they knew Iran, and the Iranian people, they would understand that there is no basis for [this] groundless wave [of protests]."[11]

The next day, January 3, Sadra Mohaqeq, journalist and social affairs editor for the Iranian reformist daily Sharq, compared the protestors to Islamic State (ISIS) members. He tweeted: "The terrorists [i.e., the protestors] have begun the stage of terror and murder, and their media arms are exonerating them [by calling them] 'popular forces', just as they are [calling the terrorists] in Syria and Iraq. When ISIS began its work, they called it 'revolutionary villagers in Iraq.'"

Tweet by Sadra Mohaqeq, January 3, 2018 (

On January 6, 2018, 16 prominent reformists published a communique calling for political reform that would also improve the economy. Along with support for the right to protest, the signatories condemned those using violence to express their views, as well as the alleged foreign intervention in the protests (see Appendix, below).

Twitter Users Criticize Reformists

The reformists' position against the protesters was condemned by Twitter users. For example, Twitter user Nayaz, with 19,000 followers, responded to Sadra Mohaqeq's tweet the next day, January 4, tweeting: "[Even] if these protests were completely useless, at the very least they made us aware of people like Sadra Mohaqeq – who claim to be the voice of the people but are now calling the people terrorists. When I look at the [Twitter] accounts of some of them, I feel like throwing up from all their audacity and hypocrisy."

Tweet by Nayaz, January 4, 2018 (

On December 30, 2017, Twitter user Kati, with 8,000 followers, tweeted: "The reformist newspapers, one after the other, say that the public gatherings have no permit and are illegal. These are the same [reformists] who in 2009 evoked Section 27 of the constitution and pointed out [that it sets out] the right to hold public gatherings. Now they stand with the oppressors. This is the height of depravity."

Tweet by Kati, December 30, 2017 (

Appendix: Communique By 16 Reformist Activists

The following is the text of the communique signed by 16 prominent reform movement figures, published January 6, 2018:

"Anyone who is concerned [that there should be] a free and prosperous Iran is apprehensive and fearful in light of the events of recent days and weeks in the cities and regions of Iran, near and far. The events of these days have shown that it was essential to listen to the concerns, the commentary, and the repeated warnings of those who yearn for Islam, Iran, and the revolution. These statements were said out of goodwill and attention to immediate and future interests, particularly [when they were expressed by] people and streams who in recent years have suffered unpleasantness and prioritized national interests over [personal] comfort, and showed responsible intervention in order to defend the difficult path of democracy, freedom, security, and stable calm in Iran. In this matter, we consider history and similar events and happenings in other societies as important, and we are also aware of the issue and demands of the people, and defend the right of the people to demonstrate peacefully [while] expressing a critical view of any violent or disruptive measure.

"In this framework, we, the undersigned, declare, according to our moral, human, and national duty:    

  1. The problems and dissatisfaction in our society are relatively deep and broad, and exist on several different levels. A significant portion of the people suffers from lack of livelihood and daily bread?, from unemployment and insufficient income. Another portion is expressing protest against social and political restrictions. The root of most of these problems is ineffectiveness and lack of oversight, corruption, and monopoly. Many times, the people went faithfully and optimistically to vote, and with their votes they gave the stamp of legitimacy to the regime. But unfortunately there has not been a prudent and timely reaction to the people's [good] citizenship... – and these responses made part of society feel humiliation and despair.
  2. Unfortunately, the lack of understanding and consensus on fundamental matters in Iran, and the weak political and social unity, have exacerbated the political and social rifts, and created a schism in Iran's social administration. In this situation, the extremist party [i.e. the ideological stream] that opposed the [Rohani] government depends on its media, particularly on the broadcasting authority [IRIB] to constantly inject [into the people] despair about the institutions elected by the people [i.e. the presidency], without taking into account the fact that the wave of distrust encompasses not only the government institutions, but all the organizations and institutions of the regime, and even Iran's civilian, religious, and cultural legacy. We hope that these events [i.e. protests] will cause serious changes in the decision-makers' current policy and approach.
  3. These protests and their violent continuation are nothing but a reflection of the laxity or weakness of the institutions that are meant to regulate social disagreements and protests, and of the laxity and weakness of the methods for expressing peaceful protest, and of [the absence of?] official recognition of the legal right to express protest. We defend the citizens' right, and the right of every sector of the people, to protest, and recognize that expressing their demands and their dissatisfaction, even [at a] protest demonstration, is beneficial for the regime. Official and legal expressions of dissatisfaction and criticism are not what endangers society, the regime, and the country. The danger is found where despair, distrust, hatred, and violence take the place of any type of expression of opinion, and of dialogue.
  4. Although the economic dimension of the protests is more public, the root of the solution to the economic problems lies in political reform, in the expansion and strengthening of the people's oversight [of the regime institutions], in the activation and independence of the official supervisory institutions, and civilian and media freedom. We believe that without agreement on such reform, it is not possible to arrive at fundamental changes, solve the economic issues, and reduce dissatisfaction.
  5. We recognize the public's right to express protest, but recognize [also] that violence and extremism should not be used in defense of this right. Violence, and dissemination of violence, will absolutely lead to loss – loss that will lead to political obstruction, and will prevent the protests from yielding any result. Obviously, violence must be fought only in the framework of the law, and by influencing public opinion.
  6. This dissatisfaction, and these protests, have various root causes and backgrounds within the country, and they should be examined properly and transparently, despite the exploitation [of this situation] by both foreign and internal elements. There is no doubt that the enemies of the country are always trying to benefit from such events, and are expressing a position in support of them. But it should be noted that foreign intervention – on every level – does not exist without an internal backdrop. When we focus on foreign elements, we neglect the roots of the protest and dissatisfaction, and we neglect dealing with them, while denigrating our society. We bear the responsibility for dealing with the elements that create crises of this kind on all levels and in all areas.
  7. We harshly condemn the intervention in Iran's affairs by America, and particularly by its illegitimate president Donald Trump. This condemnation needs no historical proof. Trump's behavior, statements, and personality; his mistaken positions; and his repeated denigration of the nation in Iran, its culture, and its history [all] create reasons for this condemnation that grow deeper by the day.
  8. As we conclude, we will mention that dissatisfaction remains among the people, and that if no significant step is taken to remove the backdrop to these protests, and if there is no appropriate response to these protests, these events will recur in the future, and the price will be even steeper.
  9. We ask all those in charge in the country to undertake concrete steps towards opening an atmosphere of discourse, and of [accepting] expression of criticism and protests – and of respect for the citizens. As a first step, all the students and others arrested in peaceful protests must be freed.

"Signed: Mohsen Armin, Mohsen Amin Zadeh, Mostafa Taj Zadeh, Reza Tehrani, Hamid Jalai-Pour, Said Hajjarian, Mohammad Reza Khatami, Hadi Khaniki, Abdallah Ramazan Zadeh, Mostafa Safai Farahani, Abbas Abdi, Feizollah Arab Sorkhi, Ali Reza Alavi Tabar, Azar Mansouri, Mohsen Mirdanadi, Mohammed Naimi-Pour."[12]

*A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project; U. Kafash is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Public Statement,, June 23, 2017.

[2], July 24, 2017.

[5] See for example Foreign Minister Zarif's May 26, 2017 New York Times op-ed in which he expressed support for Iran's policy of territorial expansion in the Middle East in order to defend the peoples of Syria and Yemen against Saudi aggression backed by the Trump administration's sale of U.S. arms to the Saudis.

[6], October 11, 2017.

[7], October 13, 2017.

[9] A deliberate misrepresentation because the talks between the American and Iranian teams were already initiated, in secret, during previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's term of office in 2012. See MEMRI reports: Special Dispatch No. 6134, Iranian VP And Atomic Chief Salehi Reveals Details From Secret Iran-U.S. Nuclear Talks: Khamenei Made Direct Talks Conditional Upon Achieving Immediate Results; U.S. Conveyed Its Recognition Of Iran's Enrichment Rights To Omani Sultan, Who Relayed The Message To Then-President Ahmadinejad, August 16, 2015; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1185, Iranian Officials Reveal That Secret Negotiations With U.S. Began In 2011 – Only After U.S. Complied With Tehran's Precondition To Recognize In Advance Iran's Nuclear Status, September 16, 2015.

[10] Asr-e Iran (Iran), January 1, 2018.

[11] Kayhan (London), January 2, 2018.

[12], January 6, 2018.



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