Images of thousands of Iranians mourning General Qasem Soleimani’s death have made their way onto Western screens, with anti-USA chants prompting the rest of the world to fear what is next.
But as with seemingly most influential global nations these days, not all is as it seems at first glance. And as is especially important with nations like Iran, it is critical we separate the general public from the actions of their government.
It was only in November when civil unrest with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s government led to the biggest uprisings in Iran since 2009. Protesters targeted state-owned banks and petrol stations, burning down anything they could with links to the government. Soleimani’s military responded by killing at least 1500 of the protesters, while Khamenei shut down the internet for almost a week.
If it seems curious that the same people that were protesting against the government months ago are now mourning the death of one of it’s highest officials, that’s because it is.
When pro-government rallies were organized in the midst of the chaos in November, state-run media reported that thousands marched across the country in support of Khamenei. Many of these marchers were paid, or forced, into attending. If you worked in some description for the regime, be it even a bank teller or petrol station attendant, you were required to march.
It is considered the same again this time around, with many questioning the validity of the rallies.
“It is fake,” my taxi driver told me after picking me up outside a rally.
“Everybody know this. You work for the bank, you must march. You cannot resist”.
There can be no doubting that some of those mourning Soleimani are hardcore conservatives that support the regime, nor is there any doubt Trump’s rash actions will have helped stir anti-American sentiment in many corners of the Islamic Republic. There may well prove to be a groundswell of nationalist support if America continues to attack, but to believe this based on several news reports of chanting crowds is foolish.
Khamenei, aware that his popularity is at it’s lowest ebb, has recently turned once again to the time honoured practice of uniting his people through a hatred of the West. Anti-American billboards adorn the street and most metro stations in Tehran feature some sort of ‘Death to U.S.A’ propaganda. Yet the people on the streets don’t believe it anymore. As a white person in Iran from a country with such close ties to the U.S, prejudice is expected but is almost non-existent. Food, accommodation and tea is offered without hesitation.
So if Trump wanted to intimidate his main foreign rival, he may well be playing into his hands. A rash assassination of a major official is a great way to unite a disgruntled population. Continued aggression, which will surely follow, will give Khamenei someone to blame his country’s dire economic situation on. But the lack of reliability when it comes to Iran’s gatherings and official media outlets makes it difficult to gauge just how much Trump’s plan has actually backfired.
While we wait for a de-escalation of tensions it is important not to mistake the actions of a few for the actions of the masses. I had been in Iran for just over a week before being invited to, and attending, the wedding of a complete stranger, such is the generosity and hospitality of it’s people. Just as our country would not want to be judged by the actions of our Prime Minister in recent months, it is a non-negotiable that we don’t judge Iranians, or Americans for that matter, by the actions of their so-called leaders.