Hardliners Again Exploit Unrest

“Leave Syria, think about us” and “death to the dictator” were some of the popular chants during the nationwide protests that shook Iran last December and January. It took the Iranian government slowing the internet, temporarily blocking Instagram as well as the popular messaging app Telegram, and massively cracking down on the demonstrations. But far from being a cure-all, these moves by the regime were nothing but a snake oil remedy.

The symptoms of social unrest once again emerged this week, with similar chants resounding from shopkeepers in Tehran’s grand bazaar.

The latest round of protests started in the capital on Monday, a day after small gatherings caused two major shopping centers, dedicated to electronics, to shut down. For the first time since 2012, Tehran’s bazaaris—from the merchant sector of the middle class—closed their metal shutters and took to the streets. They marched about two kilometers (1.5 miles) to parliament, where they were met with security forces and tear gas. Bazaars in cities including Arak, Esfahan, and Kermanshah also participated in the strike.

Iranian state media reported that the protests were fomented by the Iranian rial plummeting to an unprecedented 91,000 to one against the dollar on the black market on June 24. Reports also stated that the grand bazaar’s local mosque and board of trustees gave the nod to some bazaaris to protest, while other bazaaris were coerced into closing their shops (some shops remain closed for this reason). The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated news agencies such as Fars and Tasnim News Agency, capitalized on the unrest, posting not only articles, but footage on their social media accounts and websites.

Previously, hardline agitators instigated the December-January protests in Mashhad to expose pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani over the weakening economy. Videos circulating on social media and Telegram caused Iranians to take the streets to voice their anger about the state of the economy, rampant corruption, and disenchantment with the government.

What was initially supposed to be a controlled burn turned into a wild fire, against the wishes of hardline instigators.

This time, hardliners in the IRGC and judiciary once again seem to flirt with unrest by trying to take advantage of the Iranian people’s legitimate and very real grievances. Hardliners, like before, are attempting to use this latest round of protests to push for President Rouhani’s removal. Fars News Agency published a Sobh-e No newspaper piece that described the Rouhani administration’s willingness to “bow down to foreign threats and sit at the negotiation table.” Some hardliners have also called for Rouhani’s civilian administration to be replaced by a military one, which would in turn be one led by the IRGC.

In response to the unrest, the former chief commander of the IRGC and current advisor to the Supreme Leader, General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, said, “Sometimes it seems the country will be run better without the [Rouhani] government.”

This comment was soon followed by hardliner MP Amir Khojasteh’s threat of parliament giving ten to fifteen days for President Rouhani to confront the problem, or else the president’s “lack of efficiency” would be challenged through impeachment. The last time an Iranian president was impeached was in 1981 over what the government called “incompetence.”

General Rahim-Safavi soon back-tracked on his previous statement. He blamed a trifecta of foreign enemies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—adding that, “It is all of our duty to work together to help the respected government and other governmental branches in solving the economic problems.”

On Tuesday, President Rouhani attempted to alleviate the concerns of the Iranian people. Echoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s recent comment that Reuters was peddling fifty fake news reports daily about the dire state of the Iranian economy, Rouhani blamed the fall of the rial on the “foreign media propaganda.” He added that, “Even in the worst case, I promise that the basic needs of Iranians will be provided. We have enough sugar, wheat, and cooking oil. We have enough foreign currency to inject into the market.” Then on Wednesday, the Iranian president said he would fulfill his duties until the end of his presidency, ruling out the possibility of resignation.

To address the problems, the government decided to open a second Forex market to get around its foreign currency shortage. The Iranian government also banned the imports of over 1,300 products, including home appliances, footwear, and furniture. This news came just as Iranian social media was in uproar about President Rouhani’s expensive Western gym attire, despite the country’s economic difficulties and a governmental push for Iranian-made products.

Still, the Iranian government continues to put most of the blame on the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the reimposition of sanctions. While there is some truth to this narrative—especially since US President Donald Trump is unknowingly helping the hardliner agenda of killing the nuclear agreement and isolating Tehran from the West—it doesn’t reflect the systemic corruption that permeates government elites with hardly any accountability.

Now, the Trump administration is doubling down the pressure on the Iranian economy. On June 26, the State Department announced that the United States expects foreign countries to cut their Iranian oil imports to zero by the November 4 sanctions deadline. Earlier this week, in response to the United States’ economic warfare, Foreign Minister Zarif noted, “Hardliners, reformists, non-partisan, opponents of Islamic Republic and the administration, are all in one boat in Iran. The target is neither the establishment nor the Rouhani administration—the target is Iran.”

Zarif’s statement rings true, and though hardliners would like to see President Rouhani ousted, his removal won’t assist Iran’s dwindling economy. As long as the Iranian government doesn’t address its own part in generating some of the country’s financial woes, the economy will continue to plummet, with or without Washington’s help.

Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst on Middle East affairs. She specializes on Iran. She is also the curator of the weekly newsletter, The Iranist. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.

Image: Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz, Iran. (Wikimedia Commons)