The Iranian people have been in turmoil since the Iranian general Kassem Soleimani was killed. Only hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrated alleged national cohesion in large-scale funeral marches. Since it became known that the Iranian regime is responsible for shooting down a passenger plane that left 176 dead, thousands have taken to the streets against the regime. People want a change in the system, says Iranian journalist Mani Zarabi – the name is a pseudonym for his protection. He writes for a large reform-oriented Iranian newspaper and international media, is currently outside the country and has answered the questions by email.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Zarabi, we get from that Iran contradicting pictures: Many Iranians celebrate the killed Kassem Soleimani as a national hero, others burn pictures of him in public. What is happening in Iran right now?
Mani Zarabi: Behind the funeral marches for Soleimani was a huge propaganda machine. It ensured that even foreign media got the impression that all Iranians would worship him as a national hero. The regime quickly understood that the more cities and people take part in the funeral march, the stronger the images of a nation united in grief. Schools remained closed, including the grand bazaar in Tehran, and a three-day mourning was announced. State television celebrated Soleimani’s achievements in Iraq, in Syria and Yemen, without showing a single critical report about him. The regime staged this spectacle to distract from the bloody crackdown on the protests in November. More than 1,000 people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why did this propaganda machine work so well?
Zarabi: For a long time, a certain image of Kassem Soleimani was built in Iran: he was a patriot who worked tirelessly for his country and its people. Many normal Iranians and the media have taken this story uncritically. In regional as well as international media, Soleimani was portrayed as a hero who fought the "Islamic State" – and not as the man whose Shiite militias in Syria have helped Bashar al-Assad to kill hundreds of thousands of people in order to gain power stay. We owe the victory against IS to the Kurds in particular, but their efforts have not been adequately appreciated. The Iranian regime primarily wanted to secure more influence in the region by fighting IS. Ironically, people are now shouting "you are our IS" and they mean the spiritual leaders.
ZEIT ONLINE: Because they no longer believe the regime's narrative of defending itself against external enemies?
Zarabi: Yes. The "national security" narrative served to control public opinion and strengthen cohesion. Soleimani was considered an important guardian of this national security. The Iranian regime has long denied what role the Kuds unit led by Soleimani played in Syria, for example. But the Iranian people knew about it and were angry about it. Only when ISIS grew stronger did the leadership admit that Iran-led militias operate in the region. Their own security interests were then given as a justification for their use – instead of admitting that Iran primarily wants to assert its own power interests in many countries in the Middle East.
ZEIT ONLINE: For a few days now, thousands of Iranians have been taking to the streets because they are fed up with these lies and cover-ups.
Zarabi: First of all: there have been protests against the regime in Iran since the 1979 revolution. There were several uprisings in the 1990s, supporters of the anti-regime Green Movement protested after the 2009 presidential election, and protests continued in 2017, most recently last November. We are now seeing how frustrated people are. Corruption is widespread, the whole system is ailing. Everyone, including reformers and conservatives, is responsible for the current predicament. The leading elites are no longer able to build social consensus. You try that United States blame for their own failure, as always. But people understood that their enemy is sitting at home.