In June 2009, protests erupted in Tehran and other major Iranian cities following Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s loss in the presidential elections against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi and the other opposition candidates alleged voter fraud and questioned the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad win. Of course, the term “opposition” here is used loosely as presidential candidates are thoroughly vetted via a process that keeps out anti-establishment candidates. Everyone who makes it to the general election phase has enough credentials to be considered part of Iran’s Islamic revolution, which reached power in 1979 and has ruled ever since.
Parallels can be drawn with the US bipartisan establishment that has dominated Washington DC since the US civil war, a century and a half ago. The last time a third-party candidate won any electoral college votes in the United States was in 1968, which was the first election after the Civil Rights Movement was able to secure the right to vote for racial minorities. The vetting process for candidates through the Democratic and Republican party primaries is lengthy and aims to make sure that whoever still stands on election day has the blessing of the establishment. As unorthodox as Donald Trump’s path to the presidency was, he is no exception and would not be where he is today without the backing of major power centers in the US establishment.
In the early days of Iran’s Green Movement, which emerged in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, massive crowds took to the streets but dwindled rapidly. Even though smaller scale protests continued for months, any real threat of regime change ended by the end of June 2009, long before Ahmadinejad was sworn in for his second term. The reason for that is that many of the people who initially took to the streets were followers of the recently (as in 2017) deceased former president of Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and to a lesser extent followers of the former head of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezai, and former President Mohamed Khatami. Hashemi Rafsanjani and his business interests had been targeted heavily by Ahmadinejad’s campaign, which prompted the former to flex his muscles during the protests so to speak. The negotiation by fire tactic worked. Following a key reconciliatory Friday sermon by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the height of the protests, both Ahmadinejad’s campaign against Rafsanjani and the latter’s followers’ mass participation in the protests ceased. Basically, the initial wave of mass protests was carried out by organized regimists. Those left on the streets after that were those asking for fundamental changes, including but not exclusively some of what was left of Iran’s Left. They may have had legitimate grievances, but lacked the numbers and organizational means to achieve them. Mousavi was reportedly placed under house arrest in 2011 after renewed calls for protests in light of regional protest wave (i.e., the Arab uprisings). Rafsanjani, meanwhile, continued to hold a prominent position in the Iranian regime until his recent death.
One of the quirks of US democracy is the electoral college, whose results may differ from the popular vote. Hillary Clinton, who Trump threatened with jail during one of the three ritual debates of the presidential race, won the popular vote handily. This allowed for an easy questioning of the legitimacy of the mandate, Since Trump had, during his campaign, targeted and angered a part of the US ruling swamp, they pounced on that opportunity to flex their muscles against his presidency from day one. However, despite their media clout and visibility, the business establishment is largely on board the “Trump Train” as evidenced by the performance of US stock markets during the transition period. Trump would call it fantastic, the best, and “unpresidented."
Of course, the current reception of an incoming president to the White House is also unprecedented. Remember that the former president was greeted with a Nobel Peace Prize. The anti-Trump protests are surely not without provocation. From the Women’s March on day one to the immigrant intifada on day ten. Here hyphenated-Americans have proven that their patriotism trumps their allegiance to whatever precedes their hyphens. The prospect of losing their status in the United States mobilized first-generation immigrants more than the US-waged wars against their kin in their countries of origin. Surely, the fear of opposition repercussions might have kept immigrants, who are constantly preached to about the need for assimilation, quiet during previous allegedly more tolerant administrations. Historically, first-generation immigrants tend to be politically timid—for a variety of sociopolitical reasons. However, they appear to have been emboldened to take actions this time around—in addition to other segments of the immigrant communities. This taking action may be attributed to two main factors. First, the feeling of having nothing to lose as their deportation looms; and second, the incitement and backing by part of the establishment mass media that today stands by them. This media, which will always be loyal to their business patrons, all of a sudden, feigns interest in anti-government protest and refugee rights. Albeit, the refugees they are championing are those who served the US military invasions in the region. There has been no sudden change in the media landscape. This is just an editorial decision made by the same people who turned a blind eye to Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Pipeline protests. Why do refugee lives matter all of a sudden? This is a reversible decision, and the valuable airtime can magically vanish.
Trump has already shown willingness to dip his toes in the establishment swamp he claimed he would drain. He has absorbed the bankers and many industrialists. Former foes within the Republican party bit on their wounds and now pose behind him with forced smiles. For the right price, he may be able to make room for those holding out. He is erratic and insecure, but, at the moment, he is in a position of power and unthreatened. Just like in Iran’s 2009 protests, the anti-Trump protests are aided and inflated by part of the establishment. Despite the legitimate grievances, the only thing uniting the different protests so far is a smug chorus of elitist moral superiority. This is not enough to counter the satisfaction of fulfilled campaign promises among his followers. Without a grassroots ideology that brings together day one feminists and day ten immigrants under an organized movement that also leaves room for the Trump voters alienated by progressive America the protests risk losing momentum, fading away, and even being violently squashed. Trump supporters are more than capable of punching back. There is also the militarized police force which was exculpated in multiple cases where they were caught murdering people on camera. Immigrant lives will not matter once the cameras are turned off.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the United States there is a Rafsanjani who will score some gains from the protests in the art of the deal.