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The Role Of ‘Players In The Middle’ In Iran’s Political Landscape

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A new term was coined during the 2022-2023 Iranian protests to describe crtain individuals as “players in the middle,” who tried not to oppose the Islamic regime.

Player in the middle” (PITM) was coined to describe individuals who positioned themselves between the protesters and the regime, offering mild criticism of both sides. As useful elements for the regime, PITMs were occasionally invited to state TV programs, but they are generally disliked, not only among the protesters but also within the ruling class.

The protesters were so angry at the PITMs that they rejected figures like Mahnaz Afshar (actress) who wanted to join a protest abroad but was expelled from the rally. Other celebrities were insulted by anti-regime activists, and some disappeared from the scene. This was not just an intolerance issue, but anger at minimal cooperation with a brutal regime that was busy killing children and young people in the streets, arresting tens of thousands of people, and shooting at people’s eyes and genitals with shotgun ‘birdshots.’

A downward curve

The people who do not benefit from the status quo (more than 80 percent of the population) and are living in poverty and misery have made up their minds regarding the regime, and if they do not come to the streets, it is because of fear and not because they are satisfied. They have made their position very clear: by throwing garbage into the government’s charity boxes, attacking emergency vehicles transporting police special forces, burning the banners of Soleimani, Khomeini, Khamenei, and Hamas, turning classic car shows into a disco, chanting anti-regime slogans in sports stadiums, such as insulting the Palestinian flag, and attacking clergymen, Basijis, and hijab enforcers.

Some insiders – such as Mahmoud Karimi, a religious eulogist, and Parviz Parstouei, an actor – have recently began playing in the middle to fill the slots of absent PITMs to reduce anger towards the regime. The regime’s die-hard fans also express their wishes clearly, such as no PITMs should be seen on state TV and that the country belongs to Hezbollahis, or those who are not loyalists should leave the country.

Mahnaz Afshar and Parviz Parstouei in a scene of ‘Los Angeles Tehran’

The dominant tactic of the PITMs

PITMs aim to offer mild and “non-destructive” criticism of the government while avoiding any negative consequences for themselves. As a result, in their speeches, they often target opponents abroad and emphasize their loyalty to the security forces, exemplified by figures such as Sadeq Zibakalam and Abbas Abdi, two commentators allowed to express opinions in the government-controlled media. They acknowledge some regime shortcomings, as in the case of Ahmad Zeidabadi, another pundit who is often allowed to express critical views. Like loyalists, they tend to steer clear of engaging in conversations with opponents and staunch critics of the system.

The government’s benefits from the PITMs

Debates between PITMs and staunch defenders of the regime are sometimes held on state TV to show that the regime allows a conversation with the opposition. Nevertheless, PITMs often do not engage with those who believe the regime should be toppled. They sanctify Qasem Soleimani (Parastou’i and Zibakalam) and also warn the government to reduce discontent (Abdi and Zibakalam). They consider a revolution against the regime useless or harmful (Abdulkarimi) and sympathize with the regime (Zaidabadi and Shari`ati).

The Islamist regime has consistently embraced PITMs because, on one hand, they align with its strategy of incentivizing compliance, potentially persuading staunch opponents to acquiesce or reconcile with the status quo. On the other hand, it serves as a means to demotivate and dishearten the opposition while fostering division and conflict, especially in universities where the majority of students oppose the tyrannical regime. PITMs can also manipulate public opinion and attempt to pacify dissatisfied segments of society. They promote the system’s norms using various forms of discourse while subtly communicating with opponents and critics. Mehran Modiri excelled in this role.

Pundits Sadeq Zibakalam (left) and Ahmad Zeidabadi

A sense of danger from the PITMs

However, the weakening of the regime after the Mahsa Revolution reached the point where the rulers felt that the PITMs could be a danger to them by voicing mild criticism. The PITMs are no longer perceived as the layer to shelter or cover government officials seen as corrupt and repressive, as they have lost credibility among the majority in society – even those who do not come to the streets to protest.

Sending the PITMs to the sidelines

In the current situation, purification of public platforms such as universities or the state TV from any kind of opposition and disloyalties is at the top of the government agenda.

Right after the Mahsa Revolution, Ali Shamkhani (the secretary of the National Security Council at the time) tried to hold meetings with the reformists to prevent them from joining the movement. These meetings quickly reached a dead end because the regime did not need mediators and wanted to end the protests only with guns, torture, and aggression.

According to a Gamaan opinion survey, 81 percent of the population say no to the Islamist regime with only 15 percent endorsing it. The reports provided by the Basij and other agents engaged in repression of street protests show that they have realized how much they are hated by the people. In one of these reports, it is stated that when agents were pursuing the protesters in the streets, people were throwing heavy objects from apartment buildings at them. Knowing how much they are hated, rulers feel that PITMs cannot be useful any longer.

Now, the regime needs “hardliners” who will be with it in difficult times and if they are given orders, they will carry them out, specially during popular protests.

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran International