This was an eventful year-end (and new year) for Iran. Since 28 December, the country has been gripped by violent anti-establishment protests. The protests began in the northeastern city of Mashhad and have now spread to almost every major city in the country, Tehran included.
For many, the sharp slogans of 28 December came as a shock. The 2009 Green Movement that unfolded after a controversial election is still remembered as an unprecedented movement in the history of the Iran’s Islamic Republic, both in terms of the countrywide scope of the protests and the clarity and legitimacy of the protestors’ demands, encapsulated in their main slogans —“give us back our votes” and “where is my vote”.
How then are the ongoing nationwide protests different from those of the 1990s and 2009? What are the roots of the end of year demonstrations? What must the international community consider in their response to these developments?
Blast from the Past?
Several experts and participants the 2009 protests argue that one of the main reasons behind the failure of the Green Movement was the lack or minimum participation of the working and middle classes of Iranian society.
Besides the patent anger against deteriorating economic conditions due to overspending on aggressive regional agendas, a nuclear program that brought harsh sanctions, and corruption, the main demand was regarding the election results. Although many staunchly agree that Iran is not a democracy, it is beyond doubt that people can (or wish to) have limited impact on some of the state’s decisions through regular elections that are held, albeit under the closed oversight by a ‘special council’.
We saw that even in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections that people used the opportunity to vote in favour of the reformists (read: President Hassan Rouhani), who somewhat advocate greater public participation in decision-making. This they did in order to express their dissatisfaction of the administration and in the process, empowered the President’s position against internal hardliners who criticised the JCPOA, a multilateral arrangement that led to the removal of UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
The response of the security forces at that time was bloody, with brutal force used against largely peaceful protestors. There is almost no doubt that the 2009 election results were manipulated in favour of Ahmadinejad. But, most Iranians at that point were not dissatisfied enough to put their lives in danger for democratic and political demands.
What’s Behind The 2017 Protests?
Two terms of the Ahmadinejad government proved to disastrous for Iran, both politically and economically. Today, the Supreme Leader, who fully supported Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections, is dealing with daily statements and threats by the Former President against the officials that he appointed, especially the head of the judiciary. Even during the second term of his presidency, on one instance, Ahmadinejad did not go to his office for 11 days to register his dissent against the Supreme Leader, a unique embarrassment for the leadership.
Economically, Iran suffered in almost all sectors. Inflation rate was growing every day and has remained in the double digits, treasury reserves were draining, subsistence resources including important medicines were not available, aviation fleet was ageing, businesses could not transfer money, and corruption was rising. All of this was rooted not just in the sanctions, but also in the leadership’s incapacity.
The 2017 elections and the JCPOA gave some hope of amelioration to everyday Iranians. It is true that the economy of country is slowly improving and at least more government officials and representatives of parliament are trying to listen and support popular demands. But, at the grassroots, the impact has been limited. New aircrafts are arriving, restriction on oil exports have been removed, and most imported medicines are now available; but, inflation of most essentials, especially in critical sectors like food products and energy, remains on the upward. For example, statistics show a whopping 40% increase in the average price of fruits and vegetables from March 2016 to the same month next year.
Officials might justify this with sanctions. But, when Iranians look at the new national budget proposal, they see a lofty upshot in the money allocated to the country’s many religious institutions, which form the Islamic Republic’s ideological and power bases. This is alongside Iran’s aid to countries and groups such as the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Houthis of Yemen, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Hamas of Palestine. Additionally, many consider Iran’s heavy investments in the programmes of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as threatful and aggressive.
Clearly, in a trying economic landscape, the current modalities of national wealth expenditure have not augured well in the eyes of people. Even President Rouhani himself welcomed public criticism of the budget of certain institutions that he seems to be unable to decrease or change policies of. This includes the armed forces, of which the Supreme Leader serves as the Commander-in-Chief. This appears to be a fundamental problem in the system, and in some ways, conveying the ominous message that elections cannot bring much change.
It is worth noting here that the Rouhani government has blamed its hardliner opponents for inciting the violent protests. However, the dates of the protests undermine this accusation. In 2009, 30 December was the day when pro-government demonstrators came out to the streets in response to the Green Movement. Iranian officials recall it as the “end of intrigue”. Since that day, every year on 30 December, supporters of the Islamic Republic come out to the streets and demonstrate the power base of Supreme Leader.
A conspiracy by hardliners in Iran at such an important and politically sacrosanct time does not seem realistic. What is interesting is that many protestors have expressed that they do not differentiate between hardliners and reformists, and that they are angry at both groups.
How Are These Protests Different?
The pent-up anger and demands that precipitated after 2009 finally unleashed themselves this year. As mentioned earlier, the overall pace and dimensional scope of the recent protests were unprecedented, but not new in nature. Iran has had a long affair with mass protests: 1992 in Mashhad, 1999 in Tehran, and 2009 across the country.
But, this time, the protestors are not mainly students (as in 1999) or disenfranchised people who wanted to stop the destruction of their illegally built houses (as in 1992). Rather, they are largely people belonging to the working and middle classes. Owing to the all-encompassing economic conditions of Iran, other sections with more demands joined them later. Unlike the 2009 Green Movement, which saw protests in mostly luxury locations of the cities (other provinces and not Tehran), this time, one could see them in markedly different locations of cities, mainly belonging to less prosperous people.
A distinct feature of the current protests is the absence of a clear leadership: they began almost abruptly after the circulation of some calls on online platforms in Mashhad on 28 December, which was then followed by people from other cities. Moreover, the collective narrative against the Supreme Leader seems to be sharper than ever before. Slogans against the Supreme Leader (like “Death to Khamenei”) were unfathomable in post-Revolution Iran. Even in 2009, the main demand was about presidential elections. Today, slogans have moved from “where is my vote” to “death to dictator”.
What Must The International Community Consider?
Western governments have been quick to respond to the demonstration, although in differing tones. US President Donald Trump tweeted about the protests on the third day and the US Department of State issued a statement in support of protestors. However, this might be a recipe for disaster. Continued condemnation and aggressive statements from third parties have the dire potential to stoke the hearth, to a bloody end.
Strong pro-demonstration statements from Western or Gulf nations would be no less than a green light for a much more violent suppression of the protests by Iranian security forces (as in 2009). As the protestors are also on a much more aggressive footing this time, the whole situation could amount to a serious escalation in civil violence.
More crucially, third-party statements in support of the demonstrators would be an attestation of the Rouhani government’s allegations against the protestors as being fifth columns of foreign powers. Any outside support for protests is seen by the Islamic Republic as a foreign conspiracy against Iran. Pro-government supporters tend to look at anti-government demonstrators as people fooled by Western/Arab intelligence and that they get their directions from them.
Even common Iranians are often suspicious of foreign support to civil demonstrations. They are apprehensive of instability, growth of extremism in the country, and as a longer shot, possible external military intervention. The international community must look and assess the situation with great caution, especially because the Islamic Republic is high capable of managing the unrest and develop a hyper-aggressive response.
Regardless of what is going to happen, it is crucial to remember that these protests lack cohesive leadership and goals. Nobody wants to a repeat of the disaster that was Arab Spring.
The ongoing may be viewed as an instant revolution or a temporary expression of dissatisfaction. However, even if the protestors fail to achieve their yet-unclear objectives, for leaders of the Islamic Republic, it would be certainly seen as an indication of things to come, especially as a marker of how public sentiments have shaped up over the past few years. As a broad takeaway, the current protests may spur the leadership to reassess its policies and visions.
Jawad T is an independent political analyst from Afghanistan and has lived in Iran for ten years. His interests lie in international relations, conflict resolution, and institutions of global governance.
Featured image for representational purposes only.