The angry wave of anti-government protests in Iran – more widespread than those in 2009 – has stunned even experts on the region.
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The demonstrations began with protests against President Hassan Rohani’s failed economic policies, but rapidly snowballed into calls for “death to the dictator” – Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. A deeper political crisis was underway.
Why is this happening now?
The intensity of the unrest that began Thursday has shocked the world because, by all measures, things are better under Rohani than they were under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hard-line policies and financial mismanagement left Iran’s economy in ruins.
Rohani has clearly striven to improve the economy in a number of ways. Most visibly, he signed the nuclear deal with the big powers, sacrificing the country’s short-term capabilities for developing nuclear weapons for the easing of international sanctions that lets Tehran sell and profit from its oil resources.
But he also cut inflation from 35 percent in 2013 to 9 percent in 2017, increased exports dramatically and improved the balance of trade. At the same time, Iran’s status in the region has been boosted by its involvement in conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
But that’s exactly the problem, says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the University of Haifa who has been monitoring Iranian social media since the unrest began.
He says the fact that Rohani’s reforms did not seem to be improving the desperate situation in many Iranian households was the prime factor in driving Iranians to believe that their country's problems were larger than one leader.
“It was one thing to see that the conservatives couldn’t change things,” Javedanfar says. “But Rohani was someone who had great potential, had deep roots in the security establishment and who Khamenei trusted. After they saw that even he is failing to make their lives better, they have really lost hope. They feel that if he can’t fix things, nobody can.”
What exactly is infuriating the Iranians now taking to the streets?
The reason most often attributed to the initial wave of protests was the cost of living, particularly the cost of food, unemployment and inflation. Many Iranians – even families with members whose employment normally affords them middle-class status – have been forced to take multiple jobs.
“The promises that Rohani gave in terms of the revitalization of trade with the outside world trickling down to the average Iranian never materialized,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told Al Jazeera.
But Javedanfar notes factors angering Iranians beyond the economy. Anger has coalesced around the government’s incompetent handling of the earthquakes that have racked parts of the country and created anxiety about how Iran as a whole is being managed. Another factor that he believes has been underreported in the West is the pollution problem in parts of Iran, where children are ordered to stay home and miss school.
As Javedanfar puts it, this is a case where “people feel that the very ground they walk on is shaking, and that they can’t breathe the air around them, and the ruling regime can’t fix or help in either case because it is so mismanaged.”
The fact that the target of the protest has jumped Rohani to Khamenei is an important sign, says Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Forum for Regional Thinking.
“It shows the growing gap between the Iranian population and the regime, both regarding the economic and the political situation,” he says. “The younger generation isn’t willing to accept the status quo – they want change: economic improvement, an easing of the Islamic code. This has been a major trend in Iranian society for years, and it’s the reason that the protest over economic issues quickly turned into a political protest.”
Adding to the fury is a sense that the system is rotten due to corruption, the regime’s monopoly on more than half the economy, and a resentment over huge budget allocations for religious institutions. Cash-poor Iranians see the government allotting millions to religious institutions, much of it to train foreign clergy to spread Iran’s influence in the region. At the same time, Tehran is making social-welfare cuts like reducing the number of Iranians eligible for cash allocations.
Wasn’t the sanctions relief in the 2015 nuclear deal supposed to revive the Iranian economy?
Opponents fumed that the deal would flood the Iranian government with easy cash. But it was always something of an illusion that the deal would somehow rescue the Iranian economy and dig it out of the debt hole left by Ahmadinejad, Javedanfar says. Even without the government corruption and mismanagement that are sparking the protests, the debt was so large it would take many years for the Iranian economy to truly stabilize.
It hasn’t helped that the regime’s continued saber-rattling against the West and Israel means foreign investors are hesitating to bet on the country’s future, despite the lifting of sanctions.
“President Rohani hasn’t been able to change much” despite the nuclear deal, Zimmt says. “In order for him to do something, he would have to get Western investments. That won’t happen anytime soon due to the Trump administration’s position on Iran and the continuing fear of European companies of investing there.”
How are the current protests different from 2009?
Geographically, the demonstrations have already been far more widespread than those of the months-long Green Movement that protested the 2009 elections and were centered in Tehran. The groups taking to the streets now come from a wider range of ethnic groups and income brackets – working class, middle class, union members and students – and appear to include the conservative and the religious. They have reached the city of Qom and other locations not generally known as hotbeds of unrest.
How has social media played a role?
Twitter and the messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp have been used to rally the demonstrators. One group with a reported 1.2 million members was shut down after the country’s communications minister asked Telegram’s CEO on Twitter to do so. He said the app was being used to incite people to violence, including the distribution of instructions for making Molotov cocktails.
Even without social media, Javedanfar notes, tens of millions of Iranians have moved overseas since the 1979 revolution, and nearly every family in Iran has members living abroad who keep in close touch with those left behind. “People are a lot more aware of what goes on outside and see what’s happening in other countries, which heightens their level of discontent,” he says.
So is this a case of Iran First? Iranians don’t want to be a regional power anymore?
Much has been made of the fact that slogans in the protest condemn the money spent on Iran’s overseas adventures in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon with slogans like “No Gaza, No Lebanon, No Syria, My life for Iran!”
Javedanfar doesn’t think this means Iranians want to exit the world stage completely. “Iranians still want their country to be respected as a regional superpower, they just don’t want it to happen at the cost of their economic security and environmental safety.”
Waiting for the clampdown
What comes next?
Taken by surprise, few Iran experts are willing to predict the future. But if the past is any barometer, a wave of arrests in a harsh crackdown is to be expected. By some reports, it has already begun. On Sunday, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli was quoted as saying: “Those who damage public property, violate law and order, and create unrest are responsible for their actions and should pay the price.”
Few believe the uprising has the muscle or momentum to develop into a true revolution that will threaten the Islamic Republic.
As Haaretz's Zvi Bar'el put it, "We should not hold our breath waiting for the fall of the regime. ... The geographic dispersion of the protests in cities all around the country could create the impression that the entire country is on fire, but the number of demonstrators in every city is relatively small and can be contained."
Still, the message seems to have gotten through that fundamental change to the Iranian economy and government must happen to prevent unrest from reemerging soon. That level of reform, however, will be impossible without breaking the stranglehold of groups like the Revolutionary Guard on the Iranian economy, a figure estimated at up to half Iran’s GDP.
Javedanfar’s contacts in Iran tell him it’s “impossible to underestimate the level of hatred and fury for the way that Iranians feel their country is being ruined” and turned into a place with no prospects. Disappointment in the leadership of Rohani, who was seen as the best hope for turning the country’s economy around, seems to have been the last straw.
Ironically, he says the expected crackdown will likely produce a new wave of disgusted Iranians yearning for a better life abroad. Such a brain drain would leave the country in even worse straits.
Zimmt agrees that the chances for regime change are slim. “So far, we see that the regime hasn’t yet used serious force against the demonstrators, which shows they aren’t viewed as a real threat,” he says. “We haven’t seen hundreds of thousands come out to the streets like we did in 2009.”
But these are early days, Zimmt adds. Still, no matter what happens to the protests, the discontent can’t disappear without a painful structural reform in the government and economy that Zimmt is skeptical Iran’s power brokers will ever permit.
“So even if these particular demonstrations go away, it’s only a matter of time till the next wave of protests is going to arrive,” he says.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been tweeting in support of the uprisings. Would U.S. intervention on behalf of the protesters help or hurt?
In 2009, Barack Obama was criticized for insufficiently supporting the Iranian uprising. As much as Trump enjoys doing things differently from his predecessor, it’s probably best if the volatile U.S. leader keeps his distance from the Iran crisis, Zimmt says.
“As much as the activists might like outside support, the majority of the Iranian population doesn’t want external intervention in their affairs, especially from someone like Trump, whose policies like the ban on the entrance of Iranian students to the U.S. hasn’t made him very popular in Iran,” he says. “If Trump was seen as interfering, it could even backfire and cause Iranians to rally around the flag.”