Without real reform, domestic turmoil is likely to continue in Iran and will afford opportunities to outside powers to meddle in the internal affairs of the country.
It appears to have become a standard occurrence in Iran since 1979 that a popular revolt erupts every 10 years. The last one took place in 2009 when several million middle-class people poured out on the streets of Tehran to protest against the presidential election that they thought had been rigged by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The outbursts in 2009, as those in the past, were put down brutally by the security forces.
The Iranian Uprising
This time around, the immediate cause of an outbreak of demonstrations was the high price of food items, specifically eggs, which seemed to have gone up by 50-100 per cent in recent days. The riots started in the holy city of Mashhad, the second-most populous in the country, on 28 December 2017 for reasons similar to those that led to the Arab Spring in several Middle-Eastern countries in 2011. Iran was able to protect itself in 2011 and over the last seven years by maintaining a tight control over its society and polity. The nemesis however seems to have caught up with it in the least expected manner.
The causes of unrest include worsening of living conditions, high prices, unemployment, corruption, economic mismanagement, income inequality, discontent among the youth, misgovernance, lack of transparency and so on. Greater transparency recently has revealed corruption at the top and an elite doing well while common people are struggling to make ends meet.
Like the Arab Spring, these protests also appear to have been spontaneous and leaderless. They soon spread to all provinces of the country. This was clear evidence that demonstrations were able to tap into the discontent and strife that was widely felt, had been present for a long time and was just below the surface.
As during the Arab Spring, social media played a major role in spreading the protests. The government was compelled to shut down apps like Instagram and Telegram to isolate the demonstrators.
President Hassan Rouhani’s critics accuse him of abandoning the poor by seeking to raise fuel prices in his budget announced on 10 December 2017. Rouhani had stated in his budget speech that price rise was necessary to tackle unemployment. He pointed to the fall in inflation – from around 40 per cent to 10 per cent – as a key success of his tenure since 2013. He also pointed to a huge rebound in economic growth – which the central bank put at 12.3 per cent in 2017 – in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal that lifted many international sanctions. Much of this growth is however seen as due to a return of oil sales that generated very little employment. Unemployment continues to hover around 12.7 per cent and nearly 30 per cent for young people. Poverty rates actually increased under Rouhani. The crisis represents an explosion of people’s pent-up frustrations over economic and political stagnation.
The demographics of the protests are also revealing. The protesters in 2009 were mostly highly educated, upper-middle-class urbanites in Tehran. In the current protests, Tehran appeared to be following the lead of the rest of the country. Demonstrations cropped up in relatively poor villages and towns in more rural areas, suggesting that this movement enjoyed much greater support of the working class than the last wave of protests. Protesters in the current unrest are not asking for the help of the United States (US). Most demonstrators comprise young and unemployed Iranians and not the middle class. Reportedly, 90 per cent of those arrested in the first few days of the unrest were below 25 years of age.
The political leadership initially tried to take the demonstrations in its stride with President Rouhani saying people had the right to protest and criticise the authorities, but that their actions should not lead to violence or damage public property. This tune however changed quickly when in a matter of days the protests spread like wildfire. At least 21 people have been killed thus far and several hundred have been arrested.
Iran’s religious supremo Ayatollah Khamenei accused outside forces and enemies of Iran, implying the US and its Western allies, for fomenting the riots. The rapid spread of protests throughout the country however appears to have been unplanned and impromptu.
What seems to have infuriated the public is Rouhani’s oversell, during his election campaign in May 2017, of the benefits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement reached by Iran with P-5 plus 1 in 2015. He has however not been able to deliver the results. All blame should however not be put at his doorstep. The long-standing sanction regime, which cost Iran $160 billion every year, had crippled its economy. There was natural hesitation by foreign companies to invest in the country after a long hiatus. President Donald Trump’s assumption of office in the US and threats to withdraw from the JCPOA seem to have worsened the situation.
Iran’s adventurist foreign policies and its active involvement in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen also appear to have incensed the protesting masses. They vehemently challenged the squandering of their money in foreign exploits when there is so much economic distress and misery at home.
Exactly a week after the outbreak of protests, pro-government rallies in several Iranian cities on 3 January 2018 drew thousands of marchers waving Iranian flags and pictures of Khamenei.
What has taken analysts by surprise is the escalation of the language of slogans. Protests began with chants against the government and President Rouhani. Very quickly however, many cities witnessed slogans against Khamenei with his posters being vandalised, torn and burnt. This is for the first time since 1979 that the institutions of Islamic republic and its basic pillars have been called into question. The mystique of Iran’s Supreme Leader seems to have been irretrievably damaged. The protests targeted the Islamic Republic itself, chanting, “Death to the dictator” (referring to Khamenei) and “Death to the Revolutionary Guard,” referring to Iran’s security forces. The socio-economic genesis of the protests, in short, seems to have conjoined with the deeper political dissatisfaction with a government that has failed to deliver on its promises to make lives of ordinary people better.
It is a moot point whether the unrest in Iran has had any impact on the international price of oil, which has registered its highest level over the last two and a half years in recent days. Notwithstanding the riots, Iran’s oil output and exports have not been affected. It appears unlikely that unless the protests get much more violent and more prolonged, they will have any substantial impact on global oil prices.
It would be a matter of satisfaction for the Iranian establishment that comparatively few people have come out to join the demonstrations notwithstanding the fact that pain, anger and frustration at economic stagnation and political corruption are felt by a much larger cross-section of the populace.
The Way Forward
Several options are available to the Iranian leadership to deal with the crisis. The most obvious but also the most damaging choice, would be to violently crush the demonstrations as has been done in the past. The second option could be to buy peace in the short term and introduce superficial reforms. This would be postponing the inevitable. Protests and demonstrations could be expected to recur within a few years. The most desirable alternative for President Rouhani would be to leverage public discontent to push the political establishment to introduce far-reaching structural, political and economic reforms that the people and system are craving for. This crisis can be used as an opportunity for change.
Without real reform, domestic turmoil is likely to continue and will afford opportunities to outside powers to meddle in the internal affairs of the country. Matters could also escalate in an unpredictable way, leading to violent repression, bigger protests, and more serious political instability in the country. To avert this eventuality, it would be necessary for Iran to embark on long-term sustainable political and economic reforms.