Wednesday , 29 November 2023

A Social Historian’s Views on Iranians’ Joyful Reaction to Wagner’s Rebellion

Iranwire – For 36 hours last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power appeared to be under threat as Wagner mercenaries closed in on Moscow.

With the private mercenary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin claiming to have seized military sites in two cities, the Kremlin deployed troops to the streets of the capital and warned residents to stay indoors.

In the end, the mutiny was short-lived, with Wagner fighters turning back from their march. A reported agreement brokered by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is said to have granted Prigozhin asylum in Belarus.

During the crisis, an intriguing phenomenon emerged on social media platforms: a wave of jubilation swept across Iranian online communities. 

Why were Iranians rejoicing over Putin’s weakening and potential fall? 

To explore this question, IranWire interviewed Torej Atabaki, a highly regarded writer and professor of social history at Leiden University in the Netherlands. 


How do you interpret Iranians’ joyful reaction on social media to the recent dramatic events in Russia? Do they believe that the overthrow of Putin’s government would bring about positive changes for the people of Iran? 

“In essence, any government that aligns itself with and supports the Islamic Republic of Iran is despised by Iranians. They distance themselves from such a government and celebrate its downfall. This sentiment holds true throughout Iran’s history, from the Islamic Republic to the Qajar era. This is not unique to Iran; in any country, when people are dissatisfied with their own government, they tend to scrutinize the behavior of other governments and develop biases based on their preferences. The happiness expressed by Iranians stems from the belief that a rift within Putin’s government may lead to the weakening of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

However, it’s important to note that Iranians have long harbored animosity toward their northern neighbor, largely due to the wars between the Russian Empire and Iran in the 19th century, as well as the Golestan and Turkmanchai agreements. The fact that these historical events remain etched in the collective memory of Iranians indicates that they are not forgetful and are aware of their history. Nonetheless, Iranians may re-evaluate their stance toward global powers based on the evolving circumstances.

An illustrative example is the case of Tsarist Russia, which committed numerous transgressions against Iran and its people in the 19th century. Furthermore, during the Constitutional Revolution [of 1906], Tsarist Russia sided with tyrant Mohammad Ali Shah against the constitutionalists, imposing further hardships on Iranians. However, when the Bolsheviks assumed power in Petrograd or Leningrad and nullified all colonial agreements, Iranians warmly welcomed this move. They held celebrations, with poets composing verses and writers expressing optimism, seeing it as an auspicious sign that the century-long presence of tsarist Russia was coming to an end. 

However, this happiness was short-lived as we witnessed the fleeting nature of it. Merely two to three years after the creation of the Soviet Union, the northern regions of the country fell under the control of Bolshevik forces once again. Additionally, two years into World War II in Europe, Iran was occupied by the Allies— the Soviet Union in the north and Britain in the south. At that time, the Allies reached an agreement to withdraw from Iranian territory six months after the end of the war. However, they failed to honor this commitment and prolonged their presence. Through international pressure, negotiations and the diplomacy of the statesmen of that era, this interference eventually came to an end and the Allies departed from Iran. In essence, the behavior of the Soviet Union played a significant role in shaping the Iranians’ perspective and approach.

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Soviet Union supported the Islamic Republic. This support persisted in the subsequent years, even after many of its followers and supporters were killed by the Islamic Republic. The Soviet Union remained indifferent and continued to back the Islamic Republic. In fact, Russia’s unwavering support for the Islamic Republic in suppressing any form of dissent, be it a movement, an uprising or a protest, has persisted to this day.”

Would the downfall of Putin have any tangible impact on the lives of Iranians? Could it potentially contribute to the weakening of the Iranian government?

“… The people of Iran are unfamiliar with [the Wagner] group, as it is not explicitly labeled as a defender of human rights or the interests of the Iranian people. It is well-known that the Wagner group is one of the most notorious factions operating within the Russian Federation, having committed numerous crimes in Ukraine. Therefore, it was not specifically Wagner’s involvement that brought happiness to the people; rather, it was their deep-rooted animosity toward the Russian government. In essence, they hoped for the weakening of the Russian government without much consideration for what Wagner is or whether their improbable victory would actually benefit Iranians. 

The Iranians’ perspective, which is entirely natural, was incredibly short-term, lacking even a medium-term point of view. Their objective was to undermine the Russian government and deprive the Islamic Republic of the support of a regional power, not a global power — I personally do not consider Russia a global power, but rather a regional one…”

In the event of a severe weakening of Putin’s rule caused by a Russian defeat in the war in Ukraine or widespread protests, what implications would it have for Iran? Can the fall of Putin potentially pave the way for changes within Iran?

“In response to your question, I must address two aspects. Firstly, the contemporary history of Iran, particularly in the past 200 years, has demonstrated that Iran is stable when it doesn’t fully align itself with the East or the West. Unfortunately, the Islamic Republic fails to recognize this.

Throughout the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties, many government officials understood that Iran’s survival hinged on maintaining a balanced approach to international relations, rather than exclusively aligning with Eastern or Western powers… It is worth mentioning that I once traveled with an individual who headed the Iran desk at the Soviet Foreign Ministry. He pointed out that the most prosperous period in the history of Iran-Russia relations occurred during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. During that time, Iran maintained a close relationship with the West, while the Soviet Union provided significant military and economic support to Iran. Therefore, our history dictates the need for balanced relations…

Regarding the second aspect, we have a regional power that not only influences political relations in the region but also obstructs progress toward open societies. If we look beyond Iran, Central Asia and the Caucasus, we observe that many countries that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union have adopted governance models that are similar to Putin’s Russia. They have presidents for life and rampant government corruption. When people protest, the Russian army intervenes under various pretexts, based on multilateral agreements, to suppress popular uprisings.

Therefore, many people in Central Asia and the Caucasus believe that the fall of tyranny in Moscow would create a political opening for a vast geographical area encompassing Western and Central Asia, including Iran. However, this does not necessarily imply adopting a pro-Western stance in international relations. An independent direction guided by the immediate interests of Iranians is a desirable option — not necessarily Westernism nor anti-Easternism. 

We know that, whether we like it or not, we didn’t choose our neighbors. We should maintain a positive relationship with the Russian Federation, just as we should with China. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean turning our backs on the West, the European Union or regional powers. If Iranians or other people in this region are thinking about the fall of Putin’s Russia, it’s because his rule has become an obstacle to establishing balanced relationships in the region…”