Will Iran heed the lessons from history?

The ongoing protests in Iran began in Mashhad not Tehran, which is a highly significant factor when considering the nature of the protests;  their primary causes, and their possible trajectory. Traditionally, protests in Iran begin in the capital, Tehran, led by the upper middle classes, the main driving force of all  political transformations Iran has witnessed in the past several decades.

Such transformations include the revolution that overthrew the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, which began as a national movement before turning into an Islamic revolution.

Ultimately, the clerics emerged as the most powerful group in 1979, largely due to  organisation and the dominating presence of Ayatollah Khomeini who, at least in the first stage of the revolution, was able to contain the differences between competing powers, which were many and varied.

Current protests appear to have ignited spontaneously among disgruntled sections of Iranian society. Many citizens are feeling aggrieved at the increasing problems of making ends meet.

Such economic pressures are evident in the soaring unemployment rate of around 12% in urban areas, rising to as much as 60% in some provinces that  receive only scant government attention.  To compound the problem,  inflation has increased to more than 8%, according to official estimates, making the quality of life for many families untenable.

Deteriorating  living conditions have coincided with the growing dominance of the military which, with its various branches, is believed to account for between 25 to 40 per cent of the  budget and there is mounting pressure on President Hassan Rouhani to increase financial allocations to the sector in the next budget. The Revolutionary Guard currently receive about $7.5 billion annually, in addition to other generous financial allocations for the regular army and the Basij forces.

Current protests have continued to gather momentum, spreading through Iranian society both  both horizontally and vertically.

President Rouhani has been roundly castigated for the dire state of the economy but, in reality, his hands are tied by the effects of empty coffers

Horizontally, demonstrations spread from Mashhad to other provinces, such as Kermanshah, Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Kurdistan, Khorramabad, Najafabad, Hamadan, Isfahan, and Tabriz before reaching Tehran. Vertically, they have evolved from mere protests against  deplorable living conditions to demonstrations with an undeniable political dimension.

Demands have been broadened to put pressure on the ruling regime to stop supporting Iran’s allies abroad, whether political – as is the case of the regime of Bashar Assad, or  the armed sectarian groups including Hezbollah, the Houthi movement, and the Popular Mobilization militia.

Charity must begin at home, the protestors have clearly indicated.

The current wave of protests lacks leadership, perhaps the secret of its power, because this makes it hard for the security forces and authorities to contain it,  or prevent it from spreading to other cities and provinces. It could be argued that absence of leadership is the hallmark of  current protests, making them unique compared with previous uprisings in Iran, the most recent of which erupted in June 2009, led by the so-called Green Movement. The “Greens” rallied against the outcome of the 2009 presidential elections and the ‘disputed’ victory of  former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the beginning of his second presidential term.

The momentum  of the 2009 protests quickly diminished when severe restrictions, including house arrests, were imposed on their leaders by the authorities.

Although in 2018, some opposition forces in exile, primarily the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK),  have hastened to back the current protests, there are still no indications that show a prominent role for those forces. Meanwhile, reformists appear reluctant to support the protests as they did in 2009, which may be due to fears of persecution by the regime  if the crisis ends in its favour.

It seems that the regime is trying to apply lessons learned both from the internal crisis of  June 2009 and the Syrian crisis that broke out in March 2011. The regime has not only dealt with the protests using the military tools at its disposal, especially the Revolutionary Guard, but has also organised pro-government rallies to counter ongoing protests in multiple provinces and cities. In this way, the regime is sending a message that it still enjoys a significant popular base.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the  demonstrations on “enemies of Iran,” saying they were meddling in his country’s  internal affairs.

Shifting the pressure onto  the government and away from the ruling regime by suggesting that what is happening is a protest against the former rather than the latter has had some success. By holding the government wholly responsible for the deteriorating economy and the worsening living conditions of mainstream society,  the regime diverts attention from the real causes of the economic downturn that originally sparked the latest round of protests.

However, it is well known that the mullahs are behind the huge amounts of money  spent overseas in supporting Iran’s allies of various political stripes, while those at home suffer penury.  Iran is a very wealthy country which, in theory, could offer the majority of its citizens a comfortable lifestyle. But with billions of dollars being siphoned off to support outside interests, the cash pot – for those at home – is greatly depleted.

Many prominent religious clerics and officials have deliberately hinted  they believe the government should respond to the demands of  protesters and improve their conditions, thereby sending a message to the people that the regime does not reject their demands. It looks likely that pressure will be on exerted on President Rouhani to make a cabinet reshuffle to reinforce this impression while, in reality Rouhani’s hands are tied by a lack of available funds to enable him to execute real and lasting economic change.

It cannot be ruled out that the Iranian protests in the last four days are partly stoked by the conservatives with the aim of embarrassing Rouhani and reducing the political clout of the moderates before the coming elections. Neither can rumours of  foreign influences fanning the flames of discontent be discounted. However, what seems clear is that the Iranian proletariat has good cause to feel angry and aggrieved and  has chosen to raise its voices in  collective outrage. Those in power would do well to heed that call.

This edited article credits: The Abu Dhabi-based Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS) is an independent think tank founded in  2014. FARAS seeks to enrich public dialogue, support decision-making and enhance academic research pertaining to future trends that currently constitute a real problem in the Middle East region. 

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