Iran: What do protests (probably) mean?

We still do not know much about any organizational structure (if there is any) but it seems Iran protests are quite widespread. How do you read this, what does it mean for the regime? Read few comments.

Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council, Columnist for

These are clearly the most serious protests the regime has faced since 2009 and I think they reflect several factors.

The first is that Iran is experiencing a so-called jobless recovery. While GDP growth is up since the relaxation of some sanctions in 2016, that mostly reflects resumption in oil exports. The anticipated influx of foreign investment has not happened – in part because of the chilling effect of the Trump administration’s Iran policy and in part because of Iran’s own structural economic problems.

Fears that Trump will quit the nuclear deal have depressed the value of the Iranian currency, the rial, which in turn has boosted inflation. This plus an outbreak of bird flu has increased the price of eggs by 40 percent.

Rouhani, in his new budget, has sought to cut cash payments to working class and middle class Iranians. While devalued by depreciation, these payments were still important. Rouhani may need to revisit that.

Finally, the elephant in the room: Iranians have never been enthusiastic about clerical rule and after 40 years are thoroughly fed up with it. I still think the majority is not interested in another violent revolution. But they want more freedom – especially when their economic needs are not being met. And the regime is going to have to bend. More repression is not the answer.

Rouzbeh ParsiSenior Lecturer, Department of History, Lund University

Yes you are correct there seems to be very little known about whatever kind of organisational structure let may or may not exist. What is clear is that there is social discontent due to the economic situation.   The government’s attempts to reduce subsidies and increase prices on stable goods has ignited protests. This is not the first time this happens but the spread is novelty probably partly due to the fact that social media allows people to become aware of events beyond their immediate surroundings in a different way today than say 10 years ago.

There have also been reports that there initial protests Marshad where the result of encouragement from hardliners in the city against the government and that it then got out of hand because the discontent is very real and not that easily manipulated or contained.

In some circles any kind of protest in Iran is immediately interpreted as a systemic critique or a challenge to the state.  This is also mirrored among the hardliners in the country itself who tend to view public protests as a threat to the state.

This is however an over interpretation and it’s far too soon to say anything about how far the protests will go – and how far the state will go in repressing them.

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, St Cross College, University of Oxford

There is no leadership or defined structure as far as I can tell. These protests were initiated by conservatives in the city of Mashhad in opposition to the Rouhani government, but quickly and spontaneously spiralled out of control and caught the political establishment in its entirety off guard.

The state’s reaction has been far more calm-headed than in the past. This is partly because they were caught off guard, but also because many across the political spectrum, including many prominent conservatives, have insisted that the protesters’ demands must be taken seriously and that distinctions should be made between those seeking the regime’s overthrow or partaking in violence and vandalism and those peaceful protesters calling on the government to take immediate steps to alleviate their sense of economic hardship.

President Rouhani is due to speak this evening and until we have a chance to hear what he has to say, it will be difficult to gauge how the government intends to respond. At present, it’s clear that rocketing prices, higher than projected rates of inflation, deteriorating disposable income, as well as what the protesters see as the slow rate of political reform, are the root of this surge in the public expressions of discontent.

Jamsheed Choksy, Distinguished Professor, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

The ongoing protests occurring in the Islamic Republic of Iran are indeed spontaneous without a centralized or coordinated internal organization or external influences. The protests are widespread–in every city and in many towns and villages. The protesters come from diverse economic, demographic, and social backgrounds with one major exception in that few mollahs are involved because the protests threaten the clergy’s control over Iran.So, despite their public claims that protesters are misguided, enemies of Islam, and influenced by foreign powers, Iran’s leaders are very worried. Indeed Supreme Leader Khamenei and his core of clerics and radicals should be deeply concerned. After all, the current protests do not spring out of a rigged election like the presidential election that the mollahs engineered in favor of Ahmadinejad in 2009. But these protests do come when the regime commemorates the suppression of those earlier protests.

The present protests are expressions of over three decades of rising frustration among the Iranian people.

Iran’s population is now approximately 82 million. More than 50 percent were born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran’s people are highly literate, 82 percent overall and around 97 percent for persons under 50 years. More than 5 million Iranians attend universities within the country.

Yet the GDP per capita is less than the equivalent of US $20,000, and the unemployment rate is at least 15 percent probably closer to 25 percent. Corruption among the political elites costs the country the equivalent of billions of dollars annually. The Islamic government has failed to meet the population’s economic needs and expectations. So the protesters are demanding economic reform.

Constant social oversight, rigid codes of dress and behavior, enforced by the regime are regarded as out of sync with personal and communal desires and with modernity by Iran’s upper and middle classes, and especially by citizens under the age of 40 years. Regular edicts and chastisement by the mollahs add to the mounting frustration of the population. Demand for social reform is at the forefront of the protests too.

Iranians are tired as well of their leaders’ confrontations with the West, the country’s foreign adventurism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Afghanistan and the cost of those activities in Iranian lives, revenues, and international engagement. The protests echo Iranians’ demand that their national leaders be more positively engaged with the rest of the world rather than confrontational.

Finally, with long communal memories of shahs and mollahs running their country through authoritarian systems, the people of Iran are demanding political reform that ensures full and constant participation of the people, free press, and freedoms of expression, belief, and practice.

At present, however, it appears that the regime still has the upper-hand through the use of force. Perhaps the current protests will result in  some changes for the better economically, socially, and politically. On the other hand, the regime may revert even more firmly to its totalitarian, fundamentalist, isolationist base as it has done after suppressing prior protests.

James Goode, Professor of History, Grand Valley State University

It is difficult to understand precisely who is protesting against whom in Iran at the moment.   The conservative pilgrimage city of Mashhad, where it all began, has not been known in recent decades as a center of unrest.  Has a staged attack on President Rouhani backfired on its instigators?  What seems clear, as protests have spread, is that a good deal of popular discontent continues in Iran.  This can be related to difficult economic conditions as well as opposition to the continuing restrictions imposed by the Iranian regime.  Common folk expected a much greater improvement in economic conditions after the lifting of sanctions.  In this they have been disappointed.  Young Iranians still seem to be very cynical; they want to get on with their lives, but opportunities at home remain limited.  Many, I think, would leave Iran if they could, not necessarily because they oppose the current system, but rather because career prospects abroad attract them.

Walter Posch, Senior Research Fellow, National Defence Academy in Vienna

There is no really organisational structure but one has to look at the first phase in Mashhad there slogans where entirely anti-Rohani, the protests were initiated by his enemies in Mashhad with the predictable result of spreading throughout the country. Popular dissatisfaction apart, the hand of Rohani’s enemies is quite clear, as they started in Mashhad.  Mashhad is one of the centres of the radical hezbollahis anti-Rohani opposition today headed by former presidential candidate Raise who represents the semi-clandestine and semi-criminal economic interests of the „pious“ foundations and the tax-free economic empire of the revolutionary guards. Rohani’s fight against corruption and for a more predictable, law abiding regime runs counter to their interests. In the logic of the hezbollahis who insist of a mindset of permanent revolution and see their fortunes turned. Therefore, Rohani must be politically stymied for good. Instigating mass protests put Rohani in a inconvenient position: either he allows a crackdown which he does not want to do (see his musings about security decision making in his books) and lose popular support or he allows the protests to grow to a point where he needs to literally beg for support of those radical elements in the security apparatus  he wants to sideline and who are in cahoots with Raisi and others. The ordinary population who protest because of their frustration with the increasingly dysfunctional Islamic Republic is therefore  part of a scheme within the regime rather than a well organised protest movement. This does not make their moral-political argument less valuable, but it shows how lost the Iranian citizens are vis-a-vis the regime: either protesting without a political plan and without any organisation backing them up, and even worse, becoming part of  a Machiavellian scheme of its most radical enemies, the hezbollahis.  Or just sit and do nothing.

His presidency will be in deep trouble, if Rohani cannot overcome this crisis by squaring the circle between the demands of the people, checking the hezbollahis and keeping control over the security apparatus, True, Rohani as an experienced and reasonable regime insider may still be able to come out with a solution, However, the regime cannot effort more events like these. Popular dynamics especially within the ethnic minorities maybe more challenging than the regime can handle.


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