Will the ongoing protests against rising food prices and unemployment lead to major political and economic overhaul in Iran?
Iran has been in the grip of country-wide protests since December 28, 2017. This new burst of protests is the first since 2009. However, there are differences between the two protest movements. While the 2009 protest movement, the Green Movement, had a clear leadership, the current wave of protests is leaderless.
There is also one vital difference in terms of its geographical spread. Whereas the 2009 movement was centred in Tehran and was largely middle class in composition, the current protests have spread throughout the country and the protestors are mainly young men from the working class -- Arab, Kurdish and from lower middle class backgrounds.
Again, as opposed to the 2009 protests, which were mainly against the election rigging, today’s protests arise from a range of economic, social and political grievances.
Differences aside, both protests signify frustration and discontent with the clergy-driven system. The cocktail of grievances fuelling the protests ranges from discontent with deteriorating living standards, the rising food prices, neglect of the peripheral regions by central governments and discontent with an oppressive and closed clerical system.
Interestingly, the current bout of protests began in Mashhad and the fire was lit by two entrenched opponents of President Rouhani.
The government reacted very leniently to the protests in the early days. President Rouhani defended the right of protestors to air economic grievances while condemning acts of rioting and destruction. The President also praised the restraint exercised by the law enforcement agencies. However, despite the restraint, more than 20 protestors have been killed. Some of the protestors have reportedly reacted by killing policemen and raiding police stations to get hold of weapons.
There is a growing expectation that protests will not be allowed to linger on as they represent a serious challenge to the authority of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the conservative leadership around him.
Already, more than 450 people in Tehran have been arrested. In a further sign of a hardening stance from the regime, President Rouhani has begun to voice criticism of protests. Iranian government has also shut down social media. Khamenei has gone to the extent of accusing protestors of acting at the behest of foreign powers. President Trump has tweeted his approval of the protests as has Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has cautioned against foreign interference in the internal affairs of Iran.
The protests come at a time when Iran has become a powerful and influential regional power after its foreign policy successes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. However, these external successes have also coincided with economic and social turbulence inside the country. Iranian economy has been in doldrums with living standards falling for a majority of the population while food prices are ever rising. The price of eggs alone has seen a spike of 40 per cent.
At one level, the protests are an immediate reaction to falling living standards, high unemployment and dashed hopes of projected prosperity which was to result from the lifting of economic sanctions after the Iranian nuclear deal with the US and other world powers. At another level, the protests are also an eruption of anger at the economic and social uplift which President Rouhani had promised when elected to the office of President.
The protests also tap into the widespread sense that Iran’s reformist leadership can only deliver a limited range of concessions despite its heavy mandate. According to Professor Sadr, Iran has a tiny democratic heart within the wider system which is wrapped up in layers and layers of authoritarian structure represented in the unaccountable institutions of the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This tiny heart of democracy is in the spectacle of regular election and the parliament. Yet this tiny heart is drastically circumscribed by other state institutions such as the office of the supreme leader and the conservative and religious hardliner elements gathered around him. That is why reformist presidents such as Khatami and Rouhani have not been able to deliver promised prosperity and political openness despite occasional push back against the system. The disenchantment with the failed reformist regime of Khatami led to voters staying away from the 2005 election which led to the rise of Ahmadinejad as president.
Yet, for the Iranian people, the only chance for political openness lies through reformist leadership within the rigidly controlled democracy. That is why people returned to the folds of the reformist Rouhani presidency after suffering disastrous years of fundamentalist Ahmadinejad.
Like his previous reformist president, Khatami, Rouhani has failed to deliver economic and political reform. In fairness, though, it is not all Rouhani’s fault. The election of President Donald Trump in the US has put an end to any hopes of political and economic dividends flowing from the Iran nuclear deal. However, Rouhani has failed, too, to harness his popularity to affect a programme of political reforms inside the country.
According to some observers, the problem with reformist presidents is that they are cut from the same ideological cloth and have willingly operated within the parameters set by the conservative and hardline right-wing elements of the government. They have opted not to use the popular vote to push for a limited reform of political and economic arrangements within Iran. Rouhani is no exception to this rule. That is why perhaps Rouhani’s government sees no contradiction in handing out budgetary giveaways to the revolutionary guards and other conservative state institutions while cutting back subsidies on fuels and other items affecting a large majority of the population. It is hard not to see why protests are so strident against the government.
Given non-existent opposition, disorganised nature of the protests, the iron grip of the clergy on the apparatus of the state and the reformist leadership ideological alignment with the clerics and its hardline political outriders, the chance of protests leading to any major political and economic overhaul are dim. Like the 2009 protest, this phase shall pass too, resulting in further repression and tightened hold of the clergy on the economic and political life of the country.