Iran is not a hermit kingdom, closed to the world, or an isolated failed state. It is not North Korea or South Sudan. It is not China, either: Tehran authorities are not very adept at controlling, censoring or shutting off the internet. Iranians are very connected people – increasingly so during the past five years, as the multinational nuclear accord has eased sanctions and the country has become better linked to global financial and information channels, even though its political system is no less cruel and invasive.
Almost 50 million of Iran's 80 million people own smartphones, and, as some of the most educated and literate people in the Middle East, they are prodigious users. As protests erupted in the urban periphery this week, Iranians uploaded hundreds of eyewitness videos on Twitter and social-media sites. Millions of Iranians communicate every day with their huge diasporas in Los Angeles, London and Toronto. When something happens in Iran, anyone in the world who is fluent in Farsi can instantly talk to countless participants on Instagram, Telegram or WhatsApp, or just by calling them.
I've communicated this week with half a dozen Iranians who've been able to witness the unrest. None were really sure what the protests are about or who is behind them; some were optimistic that they might transform into something encouraging while others feared that they will lead to a more oppressive regime. All told me they're staying out of the fray for that reason. Indeed, most reporting from within Iran this week has suggested that few of the protesters really understand them, either.
Almost everyone has some reason to protest President Hassan Rouhani. Islamic hardliners hate him for having defeated their candidates in the 2013 and 2017 elections, and for having negotiated the nuclear accord and other openings with the hated West. Anti-Islamist reformists dislike him because he was opposed to their 2009 Green Revolution and has continued to imprison that movement's leaders. And many working-class Iranians resent him because he's liberalized Iran's economy – and while that has meant more employment and an end to hyperinflation, it has also meant cuts to fuel and food subsidies (gasoline, for example, was 10 cents a litre; thanks to Mr. Rouhani it is now 36 cents).
But, in another consequence of Iran's extreme connectedness, every Iranian seems to have a theory as to who is behind the protest wave – and most theories point outside. Yes, the rise in food prices was a factor, and yes, women were protesting the head-scarf laws. But protests against the hijab and food prices are a constant in Iran.
For that bedrock ire to coalesce into a mass movement, Iranians look to larger forces. The protests, they explain, are being orchestrated by the CIA. Or by Mossad. Or by the British Prime Minister (who tends to be behind every popular Iranian conspiracy theory). Or by the Islamic extremists in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, or by former prime minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or by the U.S.-based family of the deposed Shah of Iran.
The latter three theories appear to have at least some reality behind them. Credible reports show that Revolutionary Guard hardliners have been trying to provoke mass protests against Mr. Rouhani who, among other things, has challenged their considerable business holdings.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, no longer one of the hardliners, has nevertheless been agitating against Iran's comparatively pro-Western turn and seems to have a following among protesters.
And the late Shah's Pahlavi dynasty, who live in the United States and expend their considerable wealth on successfully lobbying the White House and promoting – through Los Angeles-based cable TV and internet channels – their putative return, seem to have reached some younger Iranians with few memories of the Shah's horrific rule – to judge by the protest slogans being captured on video, anyway. The involvement of this family, still detested by many Iranians, is unlikely to help the protests become more mainstream.
The demonstrations could indeed transmogrify into something more broad-based, middle-class and capable of bringing real change – but it is equally likely that those intense links to the wider world will prevent such a change.
It certainly did not help that U.S. President Donald Trump endorsed the protests. Now anyone joining risks being branded a Washington tool – and Mr. Trump's ban on the immigration of Iranians and other Muslims has made him anathema to even international-minded Iranians. Other foreign leaders have been wise to stay silent.
The world may be watching Iran this week, but Iran is watching us even more intently, with one eyebrow raised.