In his first public statement on the protests rocking the country since last Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei chose to blame the events on the “enemies of Iran,” who are “always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation.” He reminded Iranians of the terrible war against Saddam Hussein when “the dear martyrs, who left behind their homes and families, stood against the wicked enemies backed by westerners, easterners” and refused to acknowledge any true motives behind the protests.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has existed for nearly forty years. In its first decade, its leaders could blame the difficult economic situation on the war with Iraq and its effects. In recent years, it could explain away the nation's hardships with western sanctions. But for the last two years, since the nuclear deal was signed, most sanctions have been removed and tens of billions in frozen assets to Iran have been returned. The structural failings of the Iranian economy can be hidden no longer: Iran has relied on oil exports during a period of low energy prices, the leadership of major industry and imports is controlled by cronies, and a young and relatively well-educated population struggling to find their place in the job market is increasingly frustrated upon seeing incomparably higher standards of living in nearby Gulf countries on satellite television and the internet.
Khamenei’s words contradicted those of President Hassan Rohani on Sunday, who said that “not all the participants in the demonstrations are receiving instructions from abroad” and accepted that the protestors had valid claims. At least Rohani has understood that blaming all of Iran’s woes on foreigners can no longer save the regime. His response was also an attempt to harness the protests toward the reforms he is already trying to push in the Iranian economy. Just like some of the regime's hardlinres , Rohani is trying to deflect the protestors’ rage onto his rivals.
Rohani’s desire to carry out reforms is neither new nor surprising. His rivals for power, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their cronies, control parts of the economy. Dictatorships do not have a great track record in achieving major economic reforms without relinquishing their political hegemony. The only instance was in Deng Xiaoping’s China, where the Communist Party allowed a certain degree of capitalism in the Chinese economy without giving up its rule. But the all-powerful party hierarchy could pull that off in China. In Iran, where the leadership is split, Rohani does not currently have the power to force the IRGC and hardliners to give up their stranglehold over the economy. Neither does his government have full control over the state budget. Rohani can’t refashion the billions being spent annually on regional proxies – the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza – into investment in Iran’s crumbling infrastructure or creating new jobs.
But neither is the conservative hardline establishment cut of one cloth. At least part of the Islamist preachers, who are not part of the ruling elite, have been encouraging and backing protestors behind the scenes. Still, they are not on the frontline. From what can be gathered in videos and slogans from the demonstrations, those who have taken to the streets are in their early 20s, members of the young generation and the main casualties of the stagnant economy and unemployment. As far as they are concerned, all the leadership is to blame – both the flame-bearers of the Islamic Revolution, which no longer excites those born after it took place, and the polished, urbane technocrats of Rohani’s administration who created inflated expectations of prosperity after the nuclear deal and removal of sanctions.
But while background of the unrest is more or less clear, outside observers are still struggling to understand the demands of protestors. Six days in and we have yet to see one interview or clear statement of intentions from any of them. This is partially due to the media blackout the regime is trying to impose and tiny number of foreign reporters operating under restrictions in Iran, who have little real access to the demonstrations. Not only is the foreign media disconnected, even Iranian journalists in the West have trouble connecting and understanding the mainly working-class protestors from towns and cities far from Tehran.
The regime may have succeeded in blocking messages from reaching outside Iran, but the protests' rapid spread to dozens of locations across the country serves as evidence of its failure to control communication. This is despite attempts to establish an Iranian “intranet,” which will be cut off from the global web and and under control. So far, young Iranians have succeeded in evading many of the restrictions, including the blocking of Facebook and Twitter in Iran, by using VPN (virtual private network) services and other messaging apps like Telegram. The Internet in Iran has noticably slowed down in recent days and foreign websites are difficult to access, but the flow of information hasn’t been stopped.
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