The protests that started in Iran on Dec. 28 have spread to many important cities in the country and they have led to the deaths of dozens of people. Many people have made the analogy either to the Green Movement of 2009 or the Arab Spring. Political and economic grievances and some foreign instigation may have been the catalyst of both recent protests and the protests of 2009, but the recent protests in Iran differ from the Green Movement in 2009 in many dimensions. It does not mean that the new cycle of protests may not destabilize the country. In fact, this may be a warning sign of a new round of prolonged political tension and polarization in the country. Protests started with economic complaints related to wide-scale corruption, unemployment and increased inefficiency of a predominantly state-run economy. Many of the country's banks have declared bankruptcy since the summer of 2017, and many more are waiting in the line to do the same.
Protests started from the conservative city of Mashhad, where the current reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, lagged behind his conservative rival Ebrahim Reisi in the 2017 presidential elections. In the initial stage, the protests were against the government rather than against the regime, and in some other parts of the country, the slogans immediately turned against the regime. The unexpected and fast diffusion of the protests throughout the rest of the country has demonstrated the grievances of Iranian society. Protests spread in an uncoordinated way; there has been no common slogan or unifying leader or group, which are requirements of an effective social and political uprising. Unlike the anti-regime Green Movement in 2009, which was driven mainly by the urban upper classes, the protestors of 2018 are predominantly lower class workers criticizing rising living costs and corruption.
Many people are asking why and why now. The easiest way to explain the reasons behind the ongoing protests in Iran is to accuse some foreign conspirators and foreign intervention into the domestic affairs of Iran. It is true that U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia would be more than happy to see political unrest in Iran. They already intervened in the protests by supporting and encouraging the protestors, but they have quite limited resources to change the course of the protests. Rising economic and political expectations due to the nuclear agreement in 2015 and increasing economic uncertainty at the same time created tensions and grievance in society. The stagnant economy, due to declining oil and natural gas prices, and increasing costs of Iran's proxy struggles in the Middle East are important burdens on the Iranian economy. The resistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and religious establishments in their power-sharing with the president and other institutions in the country is another source of tension.
The 2015 nuclear agreement could not bring the expected economic recovery and political normalization in Iran. When the agreement was signed, Rouhani was acclaimed a hero by the supporters of the reform agenda in the country. Rouhani got the 57 percent of the vote and was re-elected in the 2017 presidential elections. Iranians expected a gradual termination of the economic and political isolation of their country, which meant the gradual reduction of the role of the security apparatus and more specifically the IRGC. Rather than using the economic resources and renewed economic opportunities to stimulate the economy, Iranian authorities continued to invest in the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Rouhani promised economic and political reforms for the future of the country, but due to the continued emphasis on Iran's regional expansion, he lagged behind his reform agenda.
Some hardline conservatives considered the nuclear agreement to be treason, but a wide majority of the Iranian population recognized the agreements as a positive step for the future of their country. The highly educated and urban population wanted to be more integrated with the rest of the world. Trump's presidency in the U.S. and his hostile discourse on Iran postponed the expected normalization process and frustrated many of the supporters of the nuclear deal in Iran. The Trump administration is in favor of more sanctions on Iran and wants to push further containment to force the country into regime change. While Trump saluted the protesters and promised future support, his encouraging words really did not help the people on the streets. On the contrary, American and Israeli comments only undermined the efforts of protestors by strengthening the claims related to foreign intervention and conspiracy.
Rouhani's response to the protests was modest, and he acknowledged the right for people to protest peacefully and signaled some reforms on his political agenda. However, the turning of the protests into anti-regime also constrained Rouhani and brought the internal security apparatus that is loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the front. Despite their intensifying rhetoric, the security apparatus is still acting cautiously to prevent the further spread of violence. It seems that the most important loser in the protests will be the Rouhani and his government, as while he tries to keep a moderate response, he is already discredited as incompetent both by the security establishment and by his popular supporters. For the reformist segments of society, while Rouhani raised the expectations of reform seekers in the country, he has been unable to serve those expectations. As for the conservatives, he will probably be considered a weak voice against Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's aggressive policies on Iran.
* Associate professor and the chair of the Political Science and International Relations Department at Ibn Haldun University
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