Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Iran protests

While their outcome is uncertain, popular protests ongoing in Iran are the regime’s greatest challenge to date, writes Rania Makram


Iran protests
Iran protests

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The wave of protest demonstrations that struck Iran 27 December had not been unexpected in view of the deteriorating economic circumstances in the country in spite of the partial lifting of sanctions following the signing of the international agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme. On 19 December, Tehran unveiled an austerity plan that included a 50 per cent hike in fuel prices and the cancellation of monetary subsidies for more than 34 million people. At the same time, the government announced an increase in the defence budget to which $11 billion has been earmarked for 2018. It is believed that the majority of the funding will be allocated to the Revolutionary Guard, the branch of the military in charge of military operations abroad that support Iran’s allies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

RAPID EXPANSION: The protests, which initially erupted in Mashhad, are seen as an expression of anger at the economic conditions in the country and widespread frustration at President Hassan Rouhani’s failure to deliver on his promises regarding employment opportunities, higher wages and anti-inflationary measures. The protests quickly spread in geographical scope to more than a third of the country’s cities, including those near the borders that are the most economically marginalised and suffer the worst development rates. The threshold of demands also increased. Protests against economic policies have segued into political protests including calls for an end to Iran’s Islamic system of government known as Velayat-e faqih (rule by clergy). Chants such as “Death to the dictator” and “Sayed Ali, show some shame and leave!” rang out from the squares. Other chants condemned the regime’s foreign policies, especially those entailing funding allies and military operations abroad. Examples are “Get out of Syria and care for us!” and “Not to Gaza or to Lebanon. I dedicate my soul to Iran.”

AN AWKWARD TIME: The protests  come at a very difficult time for the Iranian regime which has come under intense regional and international criticism over its interventions in the affairs of neighbouring countries as well as its handling of its side of the nuclear agreement signed with world powers. The chants calling for an end to financial support for outside parties and more attention to the home front have put the Iranian regime in an awkward position at a time when it is working to set the stage for greater involvement and influence in the countries of concern to it, because the crises in Syria and Yemen and to a lesser extent Iraq are still unresolved and are likely to remain so for some time.

The regime’s primary response to the protests was to circumvent the popular demands and, instead, hurl accusations of treason and espionage. Officials in Tehran were quick to characterise the demonstrations as a foreign conspiracy organised by agents for outside powers. It held that certain foreign agencies had an interest in sowing tensions and strife in Iran as a means to isolate it from its traditional allies in the region.

REGIME RESPONSE: As suggested, the Iranian regime hopes to sap the impetus of the protest movement. Its means towards this end are twofold: to promote the notion that Iran’s enemies are behind the demonstrations with the purpose of sowing domestic strife and, secondly, to absorb the popular anger by reaffirming the people’s right to express their discontent but without jeopardising national security by inciting disorder. In the latter vein, President Hassan Rouhani and other officials have stressed the need to review the government’s economic policies with an eye to alleviating the economic pressures on the people.

As part of the campaign to paint the demonstrations as part of a foreign conspiracy to undermine national stability, the official Iranian media homed in on images of the types of protesters that resort to violence and destruction of public and private property. That worked during the first two days when it was possible to black out scenes from distant Mashhad. But then the demonstrations spread to the capital and other major cities in the provinces in central Iran and near the borders in Baluchistan and Ahvaz.

The regime has resorted to radical means to suppress the protests including mass arrests and excessive violence leading to the death of dozens of protesters so far. The government, as expected, also shut down social networking sites known for their power to muster grassroots support, as the regime had learned when demonstrations erupted following the announcement of former Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 presidential elections the results of which opposition forces claimed were rigged.

OPEN POSSIBILITIES: The current grassroots demonstrations are the largest Iran has seen since the so-called “Green Revolution” that followed the 2009 presidential elections. However, the current wave of protests is markedly different to its 2009 predecessor. Firstly, it lacks an identifiable leadership, which lends it greater force. The “Green Revolution” petered out following the house arrest of its major leaders or symbols, such as former prime minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi and former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi. Secondly, the Iranian regime pursued a slightly subtler approach in response to the demonstrations this time. Whereas in 2009, it relied almost exclusively on police clampdowns, this time it showed some flexibility and understanding, stressing the need to address popular demands and urging the cabinet to review the economic policies that had triggered the discontent. In fact, in contrast to Ahmadinejad’s stance in 2009, President Rouhani took pains to emphasise the right to demonstrate and to non-violent criticism. At the same time, ruling authorities organised counter-demonstrations such as the pro-regime rally staged in Tehran on 30 December 2017 “to commemorate the defeat” of the Green Movement. The rally brought a huge turnout from the Iranian Basij and a number of Iranian universities.

It is too early to predict where the demonstrations will lead. Judging from previous experiences in Iran and elsewhere in the region during the “Arab Spring” uprisings, it takes considerable time for grassroots protests to build up enough pressure to compel a regime to respond to popular demands. But if the regime opts to rely almost exclusively on radical security measures to suppress demonstrations, as occurred during the 2009 protests, the consequences could be costly. Deep and widespread economic frustrations have created a kind of tinderbox that is easily ignited which could lead to mounting casualties in clashes between demonstrators and the police. Nevertheless, it is unlikely, at least in the short term, that popular pressure will impact on Tehran’s foreign policy in a manner that would compel it to reduce its interventions abroad. Tehran has not yet reaped the fruit of a decades-long foreign policy drive to build a network of allies and agents in the region. It still possesses a number of cards that have helped it attain its ends, not least of which is the nuclear card. Still, the demonstrations and the ability to sustain their momentum have emerged as the most important and powerful force of pressure on the regime. It remains to be seen how it will shape the regime’s ultimate response, whether in terms of suppression or, conversely, in the direction of meeting all or some of the protesters’ demands.

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