The Iranian demonstrations have flagged up both pressing domestic concerns and a distinctly international element. Kim Sengupta reports
The scale and pace of the protests in Iran came as a surprise as they spread across the land. The country’s enemies– the Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and Donald Trump– were keen to portray them as a mass popular uprising which will help bring down the government.
That was not the case, and the marches and rallies ended after a week, albeit with 21 dead and 450 injured. But what happened in that time gave a rare glimpse of the politics of power in the Islamic Republic and what may unfold in the future.
There is general consensus that the driving force behind the discontent was largely economic. Unemployment remains high at 12.4 per cent, up 1.4 per cent in the previous 12 months. There has been a steady rise in food prices with a drastic hike in the cost of poultry by up to 40 per cent, one of the triggers for the protests. The government blames the shortage and price rise on a cull that was deemed necessary to prevent an outbreak of avian flu.
Demonstrations and sit-ins had been taking place sporadically for a few weeks before there was a sudden upsurge of discontent. The catalyst for that, it appears, was a calculated act by people within the reformist government of President Hassan Rouhani.
The impending budget was leaked, revealing for the first time the massive amounts religious organisations and the Revolutionary Guards were getting from the state while the public were experiencing cutbacks. Hesamodin Ashna, a close advisor of the president, tweeted about the ‘unbalanced distribution of the budget’.
The aim may have been to garner support against the conservatives, but it also led to an outpouring of anger. There is evidence that there were attempts by hardliners to orchestrate the rallies. They began in Mashhad, a religious centre which is the home of the hardline presidential candidate Raisi and his father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a senior figure among the conservative clergy. The slogans about food and jobs there soon became political, and anti-Rouhani and anti-government. There were reports that Mr Alamolhada has been ordered to appear before Iran’s National Security Council to explain his role in what happened. He denied this was the case.
What was significant was that open anger was being directed against the conservative clergy. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who had sought to stay above it all, intervened to accuse foreign powers of sabotage. He did not name the enemy states, but other senior officials blamed the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia for instigating the protests which have led to bloodshed and destruction.
Whether the charge is true or not, there is undoubtedly an international dimension to the protests. The deal Iran struck with the world powers over its nuclear programme was supposed to bring an economic bonanza but, while there has been some economic dividend from the nuclear agreements, such as Iran being able to sell oil in the global market, others have been stymied because of the US failing to lift a range of sanctions. Trump’s refusal to back the nuclear deal and threats of even more punitive sanctions have created further uncertainty for the country’s international trade.
I recall, while covering the Iranian parliamentary and presidential elections in the last two years, how Rouhani was repeatedly attacked by his hardline rivals during the election campaign over the nuclear deal. They accused him of compromising the nation’s security and scathingly pointed out that it had not brought the much promised economic dividend in return. Trump’s anti-Iran speeches during that time were held up as reasons why the West cannot be trusted.
Yet the tactic did not ultimately work, and the Majlis elections ended in a resounding victory for the reformists. Rouhani convincingly defeated his hardline rival, Ebrahim Raisi, in the presidential election.
A few days later Donald Trump, on his first presidential trip abroad – basically an arms-selling exercise to the Gulf States – used a speech in Riyadh to launch a rambling attack on Iran, accusing it of backing terrorism.
Mohammed Zarif, Iran’s urbane foreign minister, drily suggested that the US President would be better-off spending his time in Riyadh discussing how to avoid his Saudi hosts carrying out another 9/11-style atrocity instead of making baseless accusations. But there was real worry among ministers about the fate of the nuclear agreement in a Trump presidency.
The other signatories to the deal – the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – are standing by it and have stressed that Iran is fulfilling its obligations. And virulent opposition to it is limited to the Saudi-led Sunni states, Israel, the US President and an anti-Iran faction in Congress.
But the malignant shadow of Trump continues to loom over the nuclear deal with concerns that it may begin to unravel. This should, in theory, give the hardliners in Iran heart that they will reclaim power. But the election results, as well as the protests, have shown that the wind of change is blowing against the mullahs and the repressive security apparatus, and the growing clamour for reforms, political and economic, will be very hard to halt.