As a new year dawned for much of the world, it was greeted with widely covered protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The protests actually began in the city of Mashhad on December 28th and quickly spread, mostly to smaller cities and towns. The bomb Iran crowd in western capitals were delighted by the unrest and the current U.S. president quickly joined in, tweeting his support for the protesters before anyone really knew what the demonstrations were about.
With the excitement and demands to stand with the Iranian people growing in a media echo chamber, violence, which took more than 20 lives (and it has been reported that 3 more, arrested during the protests have since died in one of the country’s prisons), both on the part of the state and a minority who may or may not have been protesters themselves, reminded some of the beginning of the Syrian war that has resulted in half a million casualties and a refugee crisis of massive proportions.
Syria had a population of just under 21 million before the start of the war, Iran has around 80 million, so the consequences of a government collapse or war within the country should give some pause to those who unfailingly call for it. There was also some casual hypocrisy on display, as those who have been calling for war in the country for years quickly became strong advocates for the human rights of those who would have borne the brunt of any intervention.
However, responsibility for the unrest ultimately lies with the country’s government, especially the unaccountable religious authorities who appear to be living quite well while Iran’s working class and mostly poor rural population go without. This is in part due to factors beyond anyone’s control, including widespread drought lasting years and culling of the country’s poultry as the result of a bird flu outbreak that increased the cost of eggs and other staples.
It’s interesting that, in a sense, a miscalculation on the part of the current president may have helped to put events in motion. In an attempt at transparency, President Hassan Rouhani made the current fiscal year’s budget available to the public. It showed that large amounts were being transferred to unaccountable religious institutions controlled by conservative clerics and likely contributed to the anger felt by many citizens.
As reported by the Financial Times, $853 million was earmarked “for about a dozen institutions that promote Islam and ideological foundations of the Islamic regime,” an amount larger than that set aside for both the culture and foreign ministries in the country.
Add to this an unemployment rate over 12% (and an official rate close to 30% for the country’s young people, with those under 25 years of age accounting for more than half the country’s population) and you have a recipe for unrest.
Like most of its neighbors, the Islamic Republic also has its own ethnic and cultural fissures, with restive Kurdish, Baluch, Azeri and Sunni Arab populations. Considering that the religious leadership of the country is sectarian (and to a lesser extent nationalist) by its very nature, it’s understandable that these groups feel varying degrees of resentment towards authorities.
It’s now believed that a terrorist attack in early June was undertaken by Kurdish militants associated with the so-called Islamic State. As the recent protests became violent in some areas, with attacks on police stations, (9) authorities in Tehran must have worried that this group, which views the country’s majority Shia population as apostates, might try to take advantage of the unrest.
At first, with very little information available, some western commentators assumed that they were watching a replay of the large 2009 ‘Green’ protests, whose main slogan. “Where is My Vote?” showed widespread discontent over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious hardliner. Many of the mostly young, urban protesters who took to the streets that summer, especially in the capital, Tehran, believed that the election had been stolen.
In retrospect, the more recent mobilizations were much smaller and most of the protesters came from very different sectors of Iranian society.
By so quickly endorsing the protesters, both in 2009 and today, western countries, led by the United States, actually helped the Iranian government, allowing them to claim that these very different mobilizations were the result of foreign interference. This is one of the strangest realities of the enmity between most of the U.S. government and their counterparts in Tehran, each to some extent feeds the other in a dangerous cycle of paranoia.
The foreign policy dilemma
Although some commentators believe that the calls from some of the protesters to end expensive adventurism abroad is influenced by outside actors, there is little evidence of this and it seems to deny the Iranian working class and poorer citizens, who were at the forefront of the demonstrations, the agency to criticize their government.
From a geopolitical perspective, Iran has been remarkably successful in responding to its regional rivals and even the world’s foremost power, in the process creating a powerful bloc including ascendant Shia in Iraq, the secular government of Syria and the sectarian Hezbollah party and militia in Lebanon, but this hasn’t come without a cost in blood and treasure. Through direct and indirect subsidies, the Iranian government has been spending at least $6 billion a year in Syria alone.
While an earlier report in the Washington Post explained that many Iranians maintain their support for the country’s participation in Syria and Iraq, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are those who think this money should be spent at home, especially in often neglected poorer areas. Part of the reason the Post gives for the widespread backing for Iran’s participation in the hostilities in neighboring countries is the fact that they are home to significant Shia religious sites but also, maybe more importantly that very few actual Iranians are dying on the ground in them.
The efforts mainly support local forces, Afghan and other foreign volunteers in a similar way to the Sunni Gulf monarchies who have avoided involvement on the ground in Syria through the use of proxies. There is one main difference, in that these forces under the control of the Islamic Republic are often coordinated by high-ranking Iranian officers. As The New Yorker reported near the end of 2015, at least four of the casualties in Syria at that point were Iranian generals, rather than ordinary soldiers.
The protests in context
The movement that brought people to the streets, if it can be called that, did highlight a division in the country between the middle class, most powerful in the capital, Tehran, and the main force behind the 2009 unrest, and citizens from smaller cities and more rural areas, many of whom rely on a government subsidies to make ends meet.
Another factor, as Vijay Prashad made clear in early January is the fact that, despite years of sanctions providing an impetus, the economy of the country hasn’t diversified and is still almost completely reliant on oil. Prashad makes the point that this in some ways mirrors the situation in another country on the receiving end of the U.S. government’s ire and wracked by widespread protest for years, Venezuela.
The grievances presented by these Iranian protesters, at least at first, concentrated on economic issues and, in terms of American politics, could more easily be compared to the early populist phase of the Tea Party protests in the United States in late 2007 than any other popular mobilization in recent memory. It turned out that those who celebrated the demonstrations without knowing their origins were at the same time unwittingly supporting some of the most reactionary forces in the country, including President Rouhani’s former opponent, Ibrahim Raisi, who hails from their epicenter, Mashhad, and who multiple sources reported seemed to have had a major role in organizing them.
These right-wingers within Iran may have miscalculated in thinking that they could control what they had unleashed, as in some areas the protesters almost immediately went off message. Some even openly called for the overthrow of the religious establishment and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the restoration of the monarchy under the Pahlavi dynasty. Probably the last thing these hardliners wanted to hear.
To the dismay of some and the almost sure relief of others, the actions seemed to peter out almost as quickly as they began. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), normally seen as allied with more conservative elements in the country, came down firmly on the side of the Rouhani government.
In the end, former President Ahmadinejad, certainly no friend of more reformist elements in the country, was reportedly in custody for inciting violence and it appeared that the more liberal part of the political establishment had been strengthened, at least for the time being.
However, if progress isn’t made on the economic front, the result could be much more dangerous for authorities, religious and secular, in the coming years. With the United States considering pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord, and if not, sanctions related to the country’s ballistic missile program practically a certainty, it remains a powerful force in terms of shackling the country’s economy.
As in the Koreas, where the United States has been at least temporarily removed from the equation, it may be necessary to freeze the U.S. out of relations with Iran rather than the other way around. Europe, Russia and China, the other signatories to the nuclear deal hammered out under former President Obama should take the lead in reassuring the country’s people that a better future lies ahead. Through trade and diplomacy the hand of moderates like Rouhani could be strengthened but the Iranian leadership ignores the anger of the working class and rural poor at its own peril. After all, these populations played a large role in the 1979 Revolution that brought them to power in the first place.