Every decade or so, a mass protest erupts in Iran that shocks the government, each round targeting the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy more directly than the last. As if on cue, demonstrations took place over the past two weeks, ushering in the country’s most widespread unrest since the Green Movement rose up to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009. On December 28, protests over the high cost of living erupted in at least nine locations. Within days, unrest had swept through 80 cities and towns all over the country, leaving 20 dead and thousands detained. While the protesters’ particular grievances were many, the overall message was one of rage against poor governance as well as the ruling system’s abdication of its responsibility to fight for social justice and egalitarianism — two central tenets of the Islamic revolution.
Drivers behind the protest
As is most often the case with spontaneous uprisings, the protests were the result of a perfect storm of several factors: dashed expectations, a long period of protester mobilization, and the unveiling of President Hassan Rouhani’s proposed new budget.
In the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, hopes were high among Iranians that their economic situation would improve following the removal of sanctions. However, these hopes have been dashed following the continued increase in income inequality and youth unemployment, which stands at 30 percent. In August 2015, 57 percent of Iranians felt that economic conditions in Iran were getting better, but by June 2017, this number had dropped to 39 percent. This trend coincided with a sharp drop in confidence that the United States would live up to its obligations under the nuclear agreement. Meanwhile, expecting a flood of foreign investment that would create jobs, Rouhani has focused his administration’s efforts on bringing down inflation while simultaneously cutting government subsidies. So far, the jobs haven’t come, while the austerity measures have brought more hardship.
Amid this economic malaise, each month Iran has seen many dozens of protests in response to a variety of issues, including workers not receiving pay, unemployment, environmental degradation, and loss of savings to fraudulent financial institutions. Protests over the latter had been especially acute over the past year, with almost 50 demonstrations occurring throughout the country in November alone. Everyday Iranians have lost billions of dollars through embezzlement and mismanagement at these financial institutions. Especially galling for the public has been the knowledge that many of these institutes are run by individuals with connections to powerful entities, including the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). People are also angry that the Central Bank has not done enough to rein in these institutes and recoup their life’s savings. These protesters, some of which have numbered in the thousands, have been the most vitriolic of all Iranian demonstrators, even calling for the execution of the Central Bank chief and frequently chanting “Death to Rouhani” — chants that foreshadowed the recent unrest.
Finally, Rouhani’s proposed budget was the cause of widespread debate on social media in recent weeks. There was frustration over his plans to drastically cut the number of people receiving cash transfers from the government, many of whom rely on them to make ends meet. At the same time, he plans to increase the price of gasoline by 50 percent. Meanwhile, Rouhani gave voice to the public’s anger in criticizing the lack of transparency by religious institutions receiving vast amounts of government money.
All that was left was for the match to be lit. On December 28, thousands poured into the streets of Mashhad to protest a spike in the cost of eggs, in part due to the culling of chickens as a result of avian flu (the fact that Mashhad is home to some of the religious institutions criticized by Rouhani has led many to believe that the president’s opponents organized the original protest). From there, the unrest spread throughout the country.
Who were the protesters?
The difference between the current unrest and the Green Movement was readily apparent. The 2009 protests had been centered in Tehran and largely consisted of educated and middle-class Iranians. The movement also had nominal figureheads in presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and was originally facilitated by civil society groups that had been mobilized for the election.
The recent protests, on the other hand, were spontaneous, leaderless, and did not revolve around a specific grievance. They also began in the country’s periphery before spreading to the power center of Tehran. This widespread mobilization was made possible by the explosion in recent years of smart phone users. Whereas in 2009, fewer than one million people had a device, today there are almost 50 million users. More specifically, around half of Iran’s population uses the social media app Telegram, which was employed to spread videos of unrest in other parts of the country as well as organize protests.
While it is difficult to characterize the protesters, it is clear that their general makeup differed from those who marched in 2009. Noticeably absent were chants in support of Mousavi, which have often been heard in pro-reform protests in recent years. Instead, there were widespread chants of “Death to Khamenei,” calls for an end to the “mullah government,” and even praise for the previous Pahlavi monarchy (the latter may be attributable more to foreign Persian satellite programs showing gauzy videos of pre-Islamic Republic days rather than a desire for the return of the monarchy). Although these anti-regime slogans were at times heard during the 2009 protests, the sheer number of people now chanting them, as well as their geographic spread, should be of great concern to the government. Rather than simply being a working-class revolt, the unrest seems to have comprised a more diverse swath of society than previous protests, including a new generation of Iranians who feel little stake in the current political system.
In the wake of these mass demonstrations, President Trump should keep the nuclear deal intact. While it is true that economic recovery has been hampered by Washington’s lack of full commitment to the nuclear agreement, killing the deal in the hopes of increasing pressure on the Iranian government would be a grave mistake. This action would take momentum away from the protesters by re-channeling people’s anger toward the United States. Furthermore, pushing for the Islamic Republic’s immediate collapse, as Iran hawks are wont to do, would run counter to our security interests. If the refugee flow from the Syrian civil war has caused political and economic tumult throughout the West, the collapse of a state with four times its population would be disastrous. A failed Iranian state would also allow groups such as ISIS to find safe haven.
At the same time, Washington should expand sanctions against Iranian human rights abusers and press our European counterparts to do the same. The Trump Administration should also help remove barriers to the transfer of communications technology to Iranians, including through streamlining the process by which American tech companies can receive Treasury Department waivers. Finally, in order to show that he truly supports them, Trump should rescind his blanket ban on them traveling to the United States.
Those hoping that the protests will lead to a change in Iran’s regional activities are likely to be disappointed. Iran sees its activities in Syria, for instance, as essential to maintaining a deterrence against a U.S. or Israeli attack. And chants by protesters against government spending in foreign wars notwithstanding, the majority of Iranians favor these activities as a means of preventing groups like ISIS from attacking Iran.
In the long run, we should be facilitating political evolution rather than revolution in Iran — something the majority of Iranians have pressed for in multiple elections. President Rouhani has acknowledged the legitimacy of the protesters’ anger, and will pursue policies to tamp down on resentment in the near term. But the nature of the recent protests suggests that, without fundamental reform, the long-term prognosis for the Islamic Republic is not good. Iran needs to create one million new jobs per year just to maintain the current unemployment rate. And to revive the economy, Rouhani must rein in the rampant corruption and cronyism — something that runs counter to the interests of the Supreme Leader and powerful factions. In the near term, protests are unlikely to drastically alter the ruling system. For that, there will need to be a leader and a cohesive ideology for the opposition to rally around. Also, the government has been able to use force to put down the protests. In the long term, however, it is uncertain to what extent its security forces will be willing to crack down on large numbers of people who may come from their own socio-economic background.
It is unclear how many more cycles of mass uprisings the Islamic Republic can weather. But if the time does come for Iran’s government to change, it should be the Iranian people who determine the time and nature of this transition.
Ali G. Scotten is a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project and the founder of Scotten Consulting, a firm specializing in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Views expressed are his own.