The current series of protests roiling Iran is unlikely to presage any significant political or societal changes in the Islamic Republic.
It is tempting to see social media images of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei going up in flames or of a lone hijab-less woman allegedly standing defiantly in Tehran, and to infer that fundamental popular changes are afoot.
But in a large, multicultural country of more than 80 million the dispersed nature of these regional protests often mixes local disputes with national anger.
Unlike the 2009 protests, where the manipulation of election results provided the ignition point for the large-scale expression of people’s frustrations with “the system” and a rallying cry for political action on the part of the massed urban members of the Green movement, these protests lack a single definitive start point. Rather, they are a series of individual protests, the most serious of which began in the shrine city of Mashhad in the northeast and was matched by demonstrations in regional centres.
The power and widespread availability of social media, in particular the encrypted messaging app Telegram, has helped fuel the unrest. But although social media can be good at mobilising people, it is not good for organising them. Nor is it good for gaining an accurate sense of exactly what is transpiring in the Islamic republic.
The present popular frustrations centre on familiar themes of economic mismanagement, inequality and corruption. The catalyst for this outbreak may well have been the delivery of the 2018 budget in the second week of December and a speech given by President Hasan Rowhani. Despite the constrained responsibilities that the Iranian constitution accords the president, he retains responsibility for the budget and subsequent economic performance. In Rowhani’s case he was also the champion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that promised economic growth in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.
This makes him doubly the target of his conservative political rivals. He is vulnerable to accusations of over-promising and underdelivering the economic benefits of the nuclear deal.
More than 700,000 Iranians are estimated to enter the job market every year for the next five years, so real economic growth rates of 8 per cent are required just to absorb them, let alone to reduce the persistently high unemployment rate. And with a huge increase in university-educated jobseekers, the economic frustrations of Iranian youth are plain to see. The anticipated boom in foreign investment that would modernise the economy and reduce the chronic unemployment problem has been disappointing.
Domestic legal and bureaucratic impediments in the hitherto largely closed economy were one issue, but perhaps the largest hurdle to investors continues to be nervousness on the part of Western financial institutions in becoming involved with Iranian entities out of fear of violating residual US sanctions and facing the resultant penalties, or of damaging business relations with US institutions or investors.
As a consequence, Rowhani’s draft budget may have made fiscal sense but was politically difficult. Iran’s historical reliance on subsidies has long been unsustainable and the population has been weaned off them gradually as they were replaced by less expensive, and increasingly restricted, cash handouts to families. The budget proposal further restricted the number of families that received cash handouts but also included a 50 per cent increase in the price of petrol, a 33 per cent increase in the price of diesel and a halving of the state subsidies for bread.
Rowhani emphasised that the budgetary savings would be spent on job creation, but this was a medium-term goal whereas the cost increases are intended to take effect in March. Like any good politician with bad news to sell, Rowhani was quick to divert people’s attention from the illness and instead focus it on the cause. He did this by blaming a raft of security and clerical organisations whose opaque funding lines draw billions from government coffers, with little public accountability.
These organisations are, naturally, controlled by his conservative political rivals. Some media reports suggested that the protest in Mashhad that was aimed at Rowhani and his government was instigated by his conservative political rivals as a way of embarrassing him and sheeting home blame for price increases on his economic management. Mashhad is home to Ebrahim Raisi, the failed conservative candidate at last year’s presidential election.
The foundation of the protests is rooted in Iran’s continued economic malaise and failure to deliver benefits to the average Iranian, particularly in the provinces, and assisted by the political rivalries between conservatives and centrists that colour most aspects of Iranian politics. But they also reveal once again the level of dissatisfaction with the political system as a whole. Iran’s revolutionary Islamic government self-identifies with notions of social justice and dignity, and these terms are often used by Tehran to justify its foreign policy activism.
But they are also concepts that resonate with ordinary Iranians. The inability to achieve economic security, let alone enable economic advancement, is a source of frustration for many Iranians, and it is the inability of the government to address their individual concerns while rewarding favoured institutions that in many people’s eyes renders hollow the claims of justice and dignity.
The government’s response has been a mixture of the tried and tired externalisation of causation by blaming foreign interference and implementing lessons learned from its brutal crackdown in 2009. Pro-government rallies in Tehran last Saturday and then larger national ones last Wednesday were telecast on state television in an effort to signal popular support for the system.
The internet and social media platforms have been selectively closed or restricted to isolate regional protests and make it hard for them to establish a critical mass. And Rowhani has been conciliatory in his public messaging, acknowledging people’s right to protest while calling for such protests to be peaceful. With conservatives, centrists and reformist figures rowing in more or less the same general direction publicly regarding the use of violence, there is nothing to suggest that the system feels itself under serious threat.
Tehran’s regional activism, particularly in Syria and Iraq, has been costly and some reports say protesters have been critical of Iranian foreign policy in this regard. But there is little to indicate that foreign policy has much to do with the protests beyond the opaque financial contributions it entails. Iranian casualties in Syria have been borne nearly exclusively by non-Iranian militias or by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel, who are supportive of the government.
The personal costs of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are not really something felt by the average Iranian, and there is a deep vein of nationalism that runs throughout Iran. Anyone who has visited Tehran’s Holy Defence Museum next to Shahid Haghani metro station can attest to how pivotal the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was to forming the world view of the present generation of political leaders. But the sacrifices of that conflict are simply part of history for this generation of protesters. Financial expenditure on military action needs to be justified and the youth in particular prefer justice and dignity from the government in the form of economic fulfilment at home, not in the form of sacrifice on the battlefield.
All politics, ultimately, is local. These protests offer a policy dilemma for Western governments just as they did in 2009. Too much public interference simply gives ammunition to conservatives who seek to blame “foreign interference” for the protests.
In contrast to the Europeans, the White House has chosen strong rhetorical support for concepts such as “standing by freedom-loving people” but in reality there is little that can be done.
Five more Iranian entities with links to the country’s ballistic missile program have been sanctioned by Washington since the protests began, but the apparently amorphous nature of the protests and the lack of a single unifying demand or leader to support are likely to frustrate anything more substantive coming from Washington.
The present wave of protests is unlikely to result in any serious challenge to the existing system of government. The protests are persistent but too disparate and too small to seriously challenge the regime, which has learned much from the experience of 2009 in how to deal with popular protests.
It would appear that once again in Iran it is the people who protest against the system, and the centrists who compete with the conservatives, while the Islamic Republic remains immune to reform. Plus ca change.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow in the West Asia program at the Lowy Institute