Protests have spread almost nationwide in Iran after beginning in the country’s northeast, centered in the holy city of Mashhad. The more significant protests have remained largely provincial, with key urban centers such as Tehran and Tabriz seeing only small protests so far. Indeed, the decentralized and largely provincial nature of the protests, and especially the speed at which they have spread, sets them apart from the mass unrest in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, which was concentrated in major cities such as Tehran. Moreover, the current protests are led not by young members of the middle class but by the working class – a demographic which has in recent years been less at the center of Iranian politics.
Domestically, the demonstrations are important because they come only months into Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s second term and could determine the course of the rest of his presidency — but the larger question is who will eventually succeed the 78-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The protests’ international significance is tied to the sanctions waivers that U.S. President Donald Trump must sign in order to comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In October, he refused to certify that the nuclear deal meets congressional requirements and put matters in Congress’ hands. Congress has responded by shifting the responsibility back to Trump. If the president does not sign the sanctions waivers, it would in effect constitute a direct violation of the JCPOA. The protests – and particularly Tehran’s response to them – could have an important effect on Trump’s decision and on his ability to win over European powers at last. Of note, both Trump and several members of Congress have so far come out strongly in support of the protesters.
The root cause of the protests appears to be largely economic, although chants have been targeting everything from foreign policy to various politicians, including Rouhani and Khamenei. Also, while the method of mobilization is becoming clear – the popular smartphone app Telegram, which has 40 million users in Iran – there does not seem to be a clear leadership (another sharp contrast with the events of 2009-2010). Many observers have noted that the initial protests in Mashhad appear to have been instigated by conservative opponents of the president but quickly spiraled out of their control.
The Iranian economy has for years been mired in a toxic mix of domestic challenges including mismanagement and corruption, coupled with external stumbling blocks such as sanctions. The outcome has generally been double-digit inflation and high unemployment – particularly among the youth and women. If there were any single trigger for the protests, it would perhaps be the new budget proposal that was made in parliament last month, which cut many of the cash handouts to the poor and caused sudden increases in the price of basic goods, including fuel (by 50%) and eggs (which due to reported avian flu rose to 7,000 rials — 20 cents — each last week).
But the picture remains blurry. On the one hand, Rouhani is faced with major economic challenges, and the government has acknowledged the legitimate grievances of the protesters. On the other, the Rouhani administration has made great strides in addressing issues such as inflation. Perhaps more importantly, the government has also returned growth to the Iranian economy, which experienced recession of more than 6 percent in the Iranian year ending March 2013. When Rouhani first took office in August 2013, inflation ran at close to 35 percent; in the previous Iranian year, it dropped to 8.9 percent — one of very few occasions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which it has run in the single digits. Nonetheless, the cost of living has continued rising during his presidency, and unemployment has jumped to 12.4 percent from above 10 percent in 2013. The growth in unemployment is partly due to serious challenges facing Iranian industry in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, including changes in foreign investment. But there are also factors beyond the Rouhani administration’s control. For instance, the country’s demographic profile, although aging, requires authorities to create up to 1 million jobs each year simply to maintain the unemployment rate. Despite projected strong economic growth for the rest of the Rouhani presidency, the IMF foresees joblessness to remain above 12 percent in coming years.
Considering the economic situation, and particularly Rouhani’s promises in relation to the nuclear deal (which included an emphasis on the pact’s economic dividends), it appears that the driver of protest is not poverty alone. Rather, another key cause seems to be a sense that expectations of increases in living standards are not being fulfilled.
Given how joblessness is especially hitting the youth, it should thus be no surprise that those who are on the streets are reportedly quite young. Government officials have said that 90 percent of the detained are under the age of 25, meaning that they did not experience the events in connection with the disputed 2009 presidential elections as adults. Many of these young protesters could also lack the pragmatism of their older peers, who took to the ballot boxes in both 2013 and 2017 to bring Rouhani, a centrist, to power. While Iran’s population is young – 50 percent are under the age of 30 – the average Iranian voter in 2013 was 38, three years older than in 2009.
Rather than a movement, it seems that a variety of protesters with a variety of demands has taken to the streets in Iran. Being seemingly leaderless, lacking in apparent political organization and being disconnected with elites — including Reformists — means that the more radical protesters effectively have no allies within the political establishment. This makes it hard for their demands to be channeled and thus paves the way for further violence — ultimately pushing other protesters out of the streets and triggering a harsher government crackdown. In short, it is hard to see a unified protest movement, with a clear vision and clear demands, emerging. However, leaderless demonstrations can complicate things for the authorities, who cannot point to one instigator.
Rouhani can lead the way toward calm by, as he has stated in the aftermath of the protests, viewing the situation as an opportunity rather than a threat.
First, the president should take tangible action to provide an outlet for expression of grievances. He can do so by working with other centers of power, such as the security services and the judiciary, to enable the Interior Ministry, which operates under his control, to license peaceful gatherings. Although the latter is guaranteed by the constitution, licensed opposition demonstrations have been virtually nonexistent since 1979. In this vein, a key aim should be to work toward establishing what is currently lacking in Iran: namely, a “culture of protest.”
Second, Rouhani should seriously address concerns about the impact of the neoliberal aspects of his budget bill for the coming Iranian year. Given the continued absence of the anticipated windfall from sanctions relief, he should work with lawmakers to find solutions that can alleviate the hardships experienced by Iranians, and especially those hardest hit in the provinces, without entirely derailing his economic agenda. Rouhani has, in the aftermath of the protests, engaged with the relevant parliamentary commission, though the authorities insist that the meeting was pre-planned. In the coming weeks and months, Rouhani and parliament must work closely to find a mutually acceptable way forward.
Last, but certainly not least, Rouhani must engage with the supreme leader to convince him of the need to tackle unaccountable centers of power. The president has long promised structural economic reforms, but vested interests have clearly been able to hold him at bay. Perhaps as a salvo in this battle, Rouhani chided unaccountable powers when he submitted his budget bill this year, referred to unnamed state institutions’ undue influence over financial markets. Many observers see the latter as having paved the way for the protests. Yet, in the long run, this battle could end up in Rouhani’s favor if he pushes for more transparency and an expanded mandate to tackle those in the way of his reform agenda.
In terms of recommendations for U.S. policymakers, it goes without saying that the louder the international support, the easier for the Iranian authorities to pin the unrest on foreign instigators. Indeed, on Jan. 2, in his first remarks after the outbreak of the protests, Khamenei pinned blame for the protests on “the enemies” — a term he often uses to refer to the United States and Israel. Yet it could also be argued that the Iranian political establishment’s gut reaction would likely have been to point at least one finger elsewhere, regardless of what U.S. leaders say or do, as noted in 2009, when the Obama administration’s refraining from aggressively siding with protesters did not elicit an absence of Iranian blame-shifting. Moreover, having almost no trade let alone diplomatic relations with Iran, the United States does not have the ability that other nations have at their disposal to issue private messages and exert direct influence.
What the U.S. can do in practical terms, having already imposed a wide array of sanctions over everything from Iran’s regional policies to its human rights record, is to refrain from playing directly into the hands of hardliners in Tehran by reneging on its commitments. Here, the upcoming sanctions waivers due to be signed by President Trump can affect domestic dynamics in Iran and, perhaps more so, the direction of the future of U.S. influence among Iranians. The last thing Khamenei’s opponents need at this stage is for the supreme leader to once again be proven right about his warnings of the United States.
Mohammad Ali Shabani is Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse Editor and a doctoral researcher at SOAS, University of London, where he focuses on Iranian foreign policy. His work has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, National Interest and BBC World News. He also offers commentary on CNN and Al Jazeera English among other leading channels. On Twitter: @mashabani. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image courtesy of AP.