In the past few days, many cities across Iran have witnessed the most serious anti-government demonstrations since June 2009, when millions of people came to the streets to protest the results of fraud-tainted presidential elections. More widespread geographically if smaller in size, the demonstrations signal growing economic and political discontent within Iranian society and pose a serious new challenge to a system that splits authority among elected and unelected institutions.
The demonstrations broke out on Dec. 28 in city of Mashhad, home to the shrine of Imam Reza, an important figure in Shi’ite Islam. The protestors initially focused on economic grievances, including the high price of eggs and rising unemployment. But reports indicate that the protests soon went further and anti-regime slogans were chanted; 52 people were subsequently arrested in the city. Demonstrations spread to some 20 cities around the country as Iranians saw videos of protests posted on social media and cell phone apps.
Some officials in the government of President Hassan Rouhani suggested that hardline opponents of Rouhani sparked the demonstrations in Mashhad, a conservative bastion. Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri said on Dec. 29 that those “who are responsible for recent incidents should know that they will face the consequences; they will not be in control of it… others will ride the wave.” Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President for Women’s Affairs, tweeted that “while protest is people’s right, they should know who is guiding them, and who their leader is.”
If political opponents of Rouhani were behind the protests, the situation swiftly got out of hand. Among the slogans protestors chanted were “Death to Khamenei,” the supreme leader of the country, “Death to Rouhani” and calls to end Iran’s intervention in foreign wars. In remarks to his cabinet on Dec. 31, Rouhani upheld the right of Iranians to protest but not to attack government property or commit other acts of violence. Yet as of this writing, two dozen people have been killed and several hundred have been arrested. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed “enemies” of Iran, including foreign intelligence services, for the unrest.
Unlike in 2009, when protestors had a clear goal – a recount of their votes – and obvious leaders – two presidential candidates from the reform movement – the latest demonstrations lack both. Indeed, there has been no mention of the leaders of the Green Movement who have been under house arrest since 2011.
One possibility is that reformist leaders were caught off guard by the protests. Mohammad Reza Aref, a leading reformist politician, tweeted on Dec. 30 that “attending the livelihood of our people is the duty of Majlis [parliament] and the administration, and protesting is people’s rights…. But we should avoid complicating our country’s [political] atmosphere….”
More plausibly, the protests signal deep frustrations within Iranian society and demands that the reform movement is unable to meet.
Rouhani’s political opponents in the conservative camp expressed support for the people’s right to protest economic conditions, while simultaneously criticizing the demonstrations. The flagship conservative newspaper Keyhan wrote on Dec. 31 that, “we cannot deny that the administration’s inability to fix the economy has disappointed many people in the country…” Ebrahim Raisi, the Custodian of Imam Reza Shrine and Rouhani’s chief opponent in last year’s presidential elections, tweeted on Dec. 29, “people, especially in underprivileged areas, are under pressure. If the government is serious about resolving the issues, people will certainly support them.”
Despite some positive economic indicators, the Iranian economy is plagued with corruption and growing inequality in wealth distribution. Rouhani has not been able to deliver on his promises to resolve the unemployment issue and according to Iran’s Central Bank, inflation has gone back up to 10 percent.
Another factor affecting Iran’s economy is sanctions. It seems that Rouhani had anticipated that in the positive atmosphere created after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, Iran would be able to attract substantial foreign investment. However, the hostility of the Trump administration toward the nuclear pact and repeated threats to “terminate” it have acted as a major disincentive to foreign companies that were contemplating deals with Iran. Trump must decide in the next two weeks whether to continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. His tweets in recent days in support of Iranian protestors and the notion of “regime change” cast a further cloud of uncertainty over the longevity of the JCPOA.
Iranians are also fed up with widespread and persistent corruption and the lack of proper supervision of private financial institutions — such as the bankrupt Samen Al-Hojaj credit institution, which for a long time operated without a license. Many of the investors have yet to retrieve their money and have lost their life savings.
It is far too soon to gauge what impact the current protests will have on the Islamic Republic, which has survived a series of crises over the past 40 years.
For more than a century, going back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Iranians have been on a long journey toward more representative government, only to be pushed back by foreign intervention and new authoritarian rulers. Current demonstrations are neither purely political, nor purely economic but reveal deep frustrations with poor economic conditions and the lack of political openness.
Many Iranians had hoped that the JCPOA would ease their economic hardships but have yet to feel its effects on their daily lives. In the latter years of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, economic frustration, coupled with the lack of political freedom, brought people to streets and eventually led to the fall of the last Persian monarch. At this juncture, the Islamic Republic is facing similar grievances but without the organization and the leadership Shi’ite clerics provided in the late 1970s. How the government will deal with the demands of the Iranian people remains to be seen.
Sina Azodi is a PhD student in Political Science and a Graduate Researcher at University of South Florida’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. He previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He received his BA & MA from Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and US-Iran relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83