Protests have their own infectious dynamics. The regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria learned this pathology the hard way, just as Iranian regimes over the generations have learned to be afraid of such protests.
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The problem with demonstrations is that their beginnings say nothing about their future developments. The protests began in the city of Mashhad on Wednesday infected Kermanshah, which suffered from a deathly earthquake this year, and from there moved on to the capital Tehran and other cities. But will they be halted by a series of arrests and the use of routine means for dispersing demonstrations, such as tear gas, arrests and strict punishments? Or will the protests gain momentum and repeat the shocking demonstrations of 2009, which Iran still has not recovered?
Local protests are nothing new in Iran, both before and after the nuclear deal. Teachers, municipal workers and government-owned company employees have come out in recent years to protest and strike, mostly for economic reasons such as unpaid salaries or harsh work conditions. Slogans against Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who has not yet made good on his campaign promises, have not been rare. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought thousands of Iranians out into the streets. Kurds and Arabs in Iran too have demonstrated for equal rights. Each time, the regime has managed to placate the protesters — usually by increasing wages, holding negotiations that generally agreed to most of the protesters' demands or by using an iron fist against the nationalist protesters.
This time it seems the causes are more general and they touch on Iran's deep and chronic ills: an unemployment rate that never falls below 12 percent, rising prices, declining subsidies, higher taxes, corruption and Iranian involvement in Syria and Yemen. Most important is the lack of an economic future, despite the removal of most of the economic sanctions on Iran as part of the nuclear deal.
The protests are not attributed to any specific movement or political faction, at least for now. They may be directed against Rohani, but slogans like “Death to the Dictator” have been heard, directed at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This means the protests are disconnected from their political context.
The reformers, who have not yet given the demonstrations their blessing, can demonstrate their strength among the public against the system of government that places restraints on progress and human rights; meanwhile the conservatives can point to the powerlessness of Rohani, their rival.
Both of these sides of the government could benefit from these protests. Rohani can use them as leverage for the need to improving human rights and advancing cultural reforms, “to preserve the stability of the government.” At the same time the conservative leadership in the government can use the protests as an excuse to neutralize Rohani’s authority. Despite the battle between the two sides of the regime, paradoxically, the protests tie together the ruling elites on both sides into a combined effort to try and reach understandings that will calm the fury.
Immediate steps, such as reducing taxes and increasing welfare allowances for the needy, are matters controlled by the regime. But structural changes in the economy like constructing large factories to hire the millions of unemployed and reducing Iranian involvement in foreign countries are long-term processes and do not exclusively depend on the government.
For example, Trump’s refusal to confirm that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement, and the debates over imposing further American sanctions have cooled the enthusiasm of investors and foreign nations from signing new agreements or carrying out understandings signed with Iran over the past two years.
Rohani may have succeeded in cutting inflation from about 35 percent in 2013 to only 9 percent in 2017; increased exports have led to a $30 billion surplus in the balance of trade; huge deals with Russia, China and Pakistan are expected to bring in tens of billions of dollars more and trade with the European Union has doubled to over $10 billion; but these agreements have still not translated into jobs and higher salaries.
Iran’s military achievements and its foreign policy, mostly in the Middle East, have given Iran the status of a mid-sized regional power. This may have strengthened Iran’s status internationally – but this has been seen as coming at the expense of welfare and quality of life among Iranian citizens, who are paying out of their own pockets for fighting in Yemen and Syria.
It is accepted that foreign policy, even when it is successful and strengthens “national pride,” cannot offset the failure of domestic policies, especially when it comes to economics. It is not superfluous to remember that Iran itself demonstrated how the Shah’s foreign policy made an important contribution to the realization of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. At the same time, in comparison to the Iran-Iraq War, which cost about a million Iranian lives over 10 years – the present wars in Syria and Yemen have not turned into graveyards for Iranian soldiers, and the protests against them now are mostly based on economic and nationalist reasons. So we should not hold our breath waiting for the fall of the regime because of its involvement in regional wars.
The Iranian regime has so far avoided flooding the streets with the armed volunteers of the Basij, the paramilitary volunteer force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They have also not put the Revolutionary Guards themselves into action against the protesters. 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.
The continuation of the protests now depends on the way in which the regime plans it next moves, both in the political struggle between the ruling elites and with the public.