Deciphering the unrest in Iran
Iran’s influence in the Middle East has been strengthening since the 9/11 attacks, after which U.S. operations devastated and weakened Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that had for decades kept Iran in check. It has also benefitted from the power vacuum left behind in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, as well as from its increased competition with Saudi Arabia through proxy conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
It has slowly been reintegrating into the international system since a nuclear deal struck in June 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 group, which consists of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. Russia’s recent involvement in Middle Eastern politics - through military presence in Syria - also strengthened its positions in regional politics.
In contrast to its growing international presence and regional influence, Iran suddenly plunged into a domestic political turmoil without a warning, prompting puzzled analyses across the world.
The wave of protests that began Dec. 28 in Mashhad, the hometown of the conservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, before spreading to other cities, seemed to have originated mainly from economic frustration among low-income Iranians. The public expectations for economic recovery and better living conditions after the lifting of sanctions in accordance with the nuclear deal have not materialized and the mismanagement of the economy has even brought opposite results in terms of high unemployment and inflation rates, widespread corruption, high food prices, and the bankruptcy of several banks.
What started as demonstrations of economic grievances of the poorer segments of the society a week ago has now taken up a political character and transformed into the largest discontent in Iran since many years. Protesters now condemn the entire political establishment and chant death to all Iranian leaders. Even if the initial suggestions that Raisi, who lost the presidential elections last May, was behind the demonstrations, the current countrywide unrest now appears leaderless and the demands of demonstrators fluctuate widely from region to region.
The initial reactions from Iranian leaders appeared uncoordinated and scattered, showing that they were also caught unaware of the prevalent public resentment. President Hassan Rouhani, who is facing the most serious challenge as the protestors first targeted his economic policies, initially took a moderate stance, comparing to tough statements from the Revolutionary Guards or other political figures.
By acknowledging economic and social grievances of young Iranians and promising to address them through parliament, he seemed to be aiming at strengthening his hand against the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, who is in control of other state apparatuses. While he was re-elected in May with promises of economic and social reforms, Rouhani was unable to deliver due to the strength of hardliners in key political structures of the country. Thus he may have initially seen the demonstrations as an opportunity to weaken their hold, but changing the character of the protests has also forced him to become harsher in his statements.
It is still early to predict the outcome of the protests, but it is clear that the Iranian government’s way of handling them would shape both the regime’s future and Iran’s relations with regional countries that are watching closely. For now, the current wave of protests appears to be different than the Green Movement, in which millions took the streets for months in 2009. As for international involvement, it mostly appears to be the figment of imagination of Iranian leaders who are hard pressed at the moment to respond to the protests. Constant tweeting by U.S. President Donald Trump hardly counts as international involvement.