Day 6

How renewed tensions are pushing Iran's anti-regime voices to the sidelines

Iranian-Canadian internet researcher Mahsa Alimardani says the fallout from the killing of Qassem Soleimani is marginalizing Iranians who want to see change in their country.

Before the killing of Qassam Soleimani, people were on the streets protesting the regime

An Iranian holds a picture of late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, as people gather to mourn him in Tehran, Iran on Jan. 4, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

Iranian officials are attempting to "censor the discussions" around the country's "turbulent" few months, which includes the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Wednesday's plane crash, according to researcher Mahsa Alimardani.

Following the Ukrainian airliner crash that killed 176 people — including 138 bound for Canada — an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Iranians "not to engage in the psychological warfare" related to the crash, she says.

"So you can see that they are quite nervous and tense about this narrative getting out of their hands."

Similarly, Alimardani says, "hardline" supporters of the Iranian regime overstated Wednesday's missile strikes on two Iraqi bases, which housed U.S. forces.

Even as U.S. officials said there were no casualties as a result of the Iranian missile strike, there "seemed like a concerted effort by [hardline channels] to really make this seem much bigger than it was," she said.

She added that in the months before Soleimani's killing, Iranians took to the streets demanding greater democracy and respect for human rights. But in its wake, anti-regime voices are being pushed to the sidelines.

Alimardani spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about how the killing of Soleimani, attacks on two U.S. military bases, and the Ukrainian airliner crash is shaping the discussions in Iran.

The Iranian government has not been transparent and seems to not want to be transparent about what happened with this plane. Do you think that eventually that will have an effect? Will that trickle down to the street? Will it become something that people will protest about or turn against their government as a result of?

What I'm seeing initially right now, I'm seeing, you know, [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani's adviser tweeted Thursday evening a warning to Iranians not to engage in the psychological warfare related to the Ukrainian airplane crash and not to buy into the Iranian opposition efforts with the psychological warfare about this event. 

So you can see that they are quite nervous and tense about this narrative getting out of their hands, and they're already trying to censor the discussions. 

In terms of what this will mean, it's been a turbulent few months since November in Iran. We've gone from a nationwide protest movement to a possible war between the U.S. and Iran. And now this tragedy that has such mysterious, but such political circumstances around it. 

Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran on Jan. 8. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that the crash was caused by a possibly unintentional Iranian missile strike. (Reuters)

And the turbulence thus far has led to what looks like very extreme changes in public opinion. In the lead up to the holidays, Iranian social media was full of anti-government protesters and then Qassem Soleimani was killed. What happened on social media after that?

With this event, with the Soleimani killing, it threw a massive wrench into these discussions because amongst even prominent Telegram accounts that I follow, activists inside of Iran that engage in these protests, you could tell that a lot of them were out on the street mourning; were against this extrajudicial killing of Soleimani in Iraq at the hands of the U.S. 

And so there was this kind of unity of Iranians against what the U.S. did that has really helped and strengthened the Islamic Republic and distracted away from this massive nationwide protest that was happening, that was criticizing them, criticizing their system and their legitimacy.

That seems like a long time ago now, because, as you know, earlier this week, there was this missile attack against military bases in Iraq, and the Iranian authorities lied about the number of casualties that were inflicted as a result of that attack. 

Online, was there condemnation or was there mockery of the regime for not telling the truth when it came to the casualties in the attack?

The channels that I would follow that are quite hardline, that belong to the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards, the Quds forces, they were spreading misinformation about the casualties. Sharing images of explosions which seemed to be unverified, sharing various quotes about the casualties coming from Iraqi sources. 

So it seemed like a concerted effort by them to really make this seem much bigger than it was. Now that there's verified documentation of what exactly the impact of their attack was, which was very minimal, there's been kind of a re-shift of the narrative — of them saying, 'Oh, this was just a small part. There's more to come.' 

It definitely seems that instead of really focusing on the military actions, it's more of a media effort to understand what the symbolism of this has for the Iranian people.

President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops on Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Well, of course, everyone was waiting to see what the U.S. response to those missile attacks would be and Mr. Trump said that he will intensify sanctions in Iran as a result. Do you think if he follows through on that that will rally Iranians against Trump or against Tehran?

There is a sense of being quite tired of the impact of these U.S. sanctions; what it's been doing to access to medicine, what it's been doing to the economy. So there is a kind of wariness towards these U.S. policies and a general impression that the U.S. doesn't truly care about Iranians. 

Now, that's not to say there aren't elements that, you know, hope for the U.S. to kind of intervene somehow for the system to change. I mean, there's various, I think, you know, views and things being expressed.

On the whole, have sanctions been successful in motivating some of the protests against the regime, and would it be possible to ratchet up the sanctions to the point where that opposition is reignited?

Iranian civil society is in a really precarious position right now. Whatever strength they might have gained by protests back in November, it's going to be a very different situation going forward because the environment is Iran is going to be very securitized. 

There's already been statements from various government officials that have said that any kind of dissidence and opposition to the system is going to be seen as cooperation with Western powers that are against Iran.

So there's a high level of paranoia with these U.S. tensions, and it's going to become an easy excuse for them to use national security reasons to repress and to arrest more activists.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.