Nicholas Nugent believes Observers envisaging a new Iranian revolution in the wake of nationwide anti-government protests are almost certainly misreading the situation

The protests started in late December at Mashhad, a city near Iran’s borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, and regarded as one of the country’s most deeply religious sites. From there they spread to more than 70 towns and cities across the country,including the capital, Tehran.By the time the demonstrations were quelled two weeks later, at least 20 people had died as a result of the police or Revolutionary Guards opening fire.Estimates of the number of demonstrators arrested ranged from 1000 (figures given by police) up to 3700(claimed by one MP). Though these were more widespread than the last wave of anti-government protests in 2009, sparked by a disputed presidential election, the number of protesters involved was much smaller.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hails from Mashhad, blamed the unrest on ‘Iran’s enemies’, apparently referring to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. In a provocative tweet, US President Donald Trump said: ‘The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism’, adding later: ‘Time for change’. When the US proposed convening the United Nations Security Council to consider the protests, it was ridiculed by fellow Council members. Everyone except the American leadership, it seemed,saw the street protests as an Iranian internal affair and believed there was no case for the UN to become involved.

Inside the country there were no indications thatthe protests were part of an organised movement, though social media played a significant role in publicising news about them, thereby causing the demonstrations to spread. Recognising this, the government closed down the popular Telegraph messaging app.

What the protestswere wasa spontaneous outpouring of economic discontent, about the rising priceof eggsand,more generally, the reduction in subsidies on foodstuffs and fuel,as well as the high level of unemployment: as many as 25 per cent of young people in Iran are without work. Protestors cited growing poverty in a society which had been expecting an economic dividend after most international sanctions ended when Iran signed a deal in 2015 requiring it to curtail its nuclear ambitions.

Protestors called for the resignation of Iran’s powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Protestors called for the resignation of Iran’s powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

According to Ali Vaez, who monitors Iran for the International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘the crisis is an explosion of the Iranian people’s pent up frustrations over economic and political stagnation’.The government’s agreement to the nuclear deal had given rise to an expectation of improved living standards.

A draft state budget leaked shortly before the protests began proposed slashing subsidies while increasing funding for the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the major force propping up the institutions of the Islamic state, and for movements abroad such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen – militant instruments of Iran’s foreign policy.

Protestors called on the government to cease its role in Gaza and Lebanon and to withdraw support for President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership in Syria. Banners criticised mullahs for riding around in cars while the people were struggling to feed themselves. There were also charges of corruption aimed at the Revolutionary Guards.Initial reports alleged that the protestors targeted President Hassan Rouhani, seen as a reformist leader, leading to suspicion that his hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an opponent of the nuclear deal, may have engineered the protests. The head of the Revolutionary Guards appeared to endorse this suspicion when he blamed ‘someone’ speaking against the establishment on a personal website.

As many as 25 per cent of young people in Iran are without work

The protestors also demanded the resignation of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Under Iran’s Islamic constitution, Khamenei is more powerful than either the democratically elected president or the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis-e ShouraIslami), the country’s parliament.

The protests served to emphasise limitations to the power of the elected president, who may have felt some sympathy for the protestors. Rouhani knows that when setting a course for his government he is bound to take account of the needs of the powerful Revolutionary Guards and that he has only limited power to influence the country’s foreign policy, which is controlled by the conservative religious establishment.

Beyond apportioning blame to the country’s enemies, Iran’s leadership has said little in response to the protests, though action was taken to bring government supporters onto the street in well organised counter-demonstrations.

Observers believe that the protests came as something of a shock to the country’s leadership and may give rise to adjustments in the budget, for example – though there is unlikely to be any admission to that effect. President Rouhani has most to lose by way of support for his reformist agenda if he does not take action to address what has been shown to be widespread discontent.

Iran watchers, including the ICG’s Ali Vaez, and Dr SanamVakil of London’s Chatham House think tank, say the protests give President Rouhanian opportunity to advance his reform programme and rebalance power away from the state’s unelected institutions, including the Supreme Leadership and the Islamic Guardian Council. Vaez says: ‘If his [Rouhani’s] reform package is blocked, it will be clear to the Iranian people where the problem lies, positioning Rouhani as a motor for change rather than a bulwark against it.’

Internationally the protests attracted interest because of the mid-January deadline toextend the nuclear deal, whose signatoriesbesides Iran are the US, UK, China, Russia, France, Germany and the European Union. Under the deal – known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action –Iran agreed to curtail its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions by nations that opposed its nuclear ambitions. President Trump has criticised the deal, agreed by his predecessor Barack Obama, calling it ‘the worst deal ever’.

The protests shocked the country’s leadership and may give rise to adjustments in the budget

Meeting in Brussels ahead of the renewal deadline, European Union participantswere told that Iran was fully complying with the commitments it made under the agreement, which is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Authority. Agreeing to an extension, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said,‘The deal is working, it is delivering on its main goal which is keeping the Iranian nuclear programme in check and under close surveillance.’

The following day an evidently reluctant Donald Trump also agreed to extend US participation in the deal ‘one last time’,saying he expected what he called the deal’s ‘terrible flaws’ to be fixed by making the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear plans permanent. In extending the deal for a further four months, neither President Trump nor other leaders referred to the recent unrest on Iran’s streets.

Those predicting a ‘Persian Winter’, to follow the earlier ‘Arab Spring’, are almost certainly reading too much into essentially economic and spontaneous street protests which hardly merit the term ‘movement’ since nobody in particular was driving it. The level of discontent is not as great as that which followed either controversial elections in 2009, or the broad national movement which preceded the coming to power of the mullahs, led by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, nearly 40 years ago.

Even so, the intensity and rapid spread of this latest discontent will cause the government to reassess its economic policies (though not necessarily its support for unpopular foreign causes) and may tilt the balance of internal power in favour of the elected government.

Nicholas Nugent is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union. Previously on the staff of the BBC World Service, he has written books on India and Vietnam and contributed to others on Indonesia and Myanmar. He is working on a history of the Spice trade.

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