In Kermanshah, a Kurdish town in Iran’s north-west, the protests on Friday were a classic scene of revolt: young men in battered clothes shouting and hurling rocks at the police as a water cannon sprayed an ineffective mist over their heads. In footage on social media, the crowd never appeared to grow larger than a few hundred, but its defiance was palpable. What is vexing the people of Kermanshah? What is vexing the people of Iran, who have protested in 20 cities across the country for four successive days?
Depending on what media you follow, they want everything from lower prices and a better economy to the wholesale fall of the clerical government, and the world could be confronting anything from scattered discontent to a looming Tahrir Square. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, open displays of dissent are not as uncommon as is often portrayed: women engage in acts of civil disobedience over dress codes and access to public spaces, ordinary citizens protest against unpaid wages and lost deposits.
But street unrest in Iran is rare, and understanding it becomes a hall of mirrors: a nervous government blames outsiders, regional rivals spread rumours, and an array of sponsored or eternally hopeful opposition groups and activists project their ideologies and dreams on to what are, usually, serious demands for greater government accountability, fewer wealth disparities and less corruption.
In Kermanshah, people are fed up with inflation, unemployment and other parlous aspects of the Iranian economy, but they are also aggrieved at what they perceive as the state’s neglect of their region, which suffers those ills at higher rates than the national average. The state, for its part, is sharply aware of the people’s grievances and the perils of ignoring them. A report issued by a think tank affiliated with the interior ministry, for instance, acknowledged that grievances were fuelling the appeal of Salafi jihadist groups in the north-west border region, and outlined ways to redress that.
What flared in Kermanshah was about Kermanshah’s problems, but it spread from Mashhad in the north-east, where earlier in the week people demonstrated over the state of the economy, calling for “death to Rouhani”. Mashhad is the power base of two of the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s key opponents; one of whom, the local Friday prayer leader, openly sympathised with the protesters, as did, peculiarly, hardline media outlets. By Thursday there were signs that factions opposed to Rouhani were cultivating the interest, seeking to torpedo his economic plans and perhaps even make him politically unfit to seek the position of supreme leader, whenever the vacancy emerges.
As is eternally the case in a capricious Iran that seems quiescent until it suddenly isn’t, the unrest found a momentum of its own, resonating with working-class young people across the country who saw an outlet for their frustration with a hobbled political system that offers them no economic dignity, while allowing a moneyed class to succeed, travel, and thrive, increasingly in full public view. As the protests spread from province to province, others turned out in regions that, like Kermanshah, feel ignored by the central government. Rouhani was elected with a sweeping mandate in May, and the unrest is an unwelcome, early turning point in his second term. Though his platform promised economic recovery, Rouhani has found himself blocked at every turn. The sanctions relief promised by western states in exchange for the signing of the JCPOA nuclear agreement has not been forthcoming, and his plans to reform the banking system have met with opposition from entrenched clerical and security spheres that stand to lose. Rivals have arrested the brother of his vice-president, threatened his own brother with prosecution, and disrupted important oil and gas deals. The president has been forced to reach for smaller measures, such as raising exit taxes on foreign travel; raiding the middle class instead of pushing for structural changes.
Iranians have been conditioned for nearly 40 years to reflexively shout ‘death to’ something when they are enraged
The real challenges facing the country are not lost on Iranians. They wait, with varying degrees of patience, for the system to work out how it intends to govern and meet its economic promises, while locked in its current impasse: an executive branch whose powers are curtailed by clerical and military institutions with often rival political and financial agendas; a theocratic republic that has never squared how it can workably be that, while imposing unsustainable rules on a society that is desperate to integrate with the rest of the world.
How do we make sense of such an Iran, especially when it is wracked with protests, albeit small ones? Can anything nuanced be said with confidence? Only, perhaps, that while stark economic grievances fuel protest, a broad swath of Iranians are more nationalistic than ever, wary of the hostility that emanates from the Sunni Gulf states. They are divided over Iran’s activities in the region, and whether expenditure abroad is wasted money, but united in a rising anti-Arab xenophobia: for every shout heard this past week against Iran’s support for Hezbollah, there are whole neighbourhoods draped in camouflage tents to welcome back brigades that have been fighting in Syria.
“Death to the dictator” has rung out across the cities of Iran, but Iranians have been conditioned for nearly 40 years to reflexively shout “death to” something when they are enraged. It can mean anything from “please overhaul this whole system” to “please get rid of this particular leader who embodies all my grief at my troubled life”. This is what happens when a people with a strong tradition of sophisticated engagement with politics face severe consequences for expressing dissent. “Death to” becomes a culture in and of itself when there is little space to articulate legitimate demands.
Rouhani acknowledged this on Sunday when he said “the people are completely free to make criticism and even protest,” though he warned against sowing chaos and disorder in the process. The president’s words are pithy, but opening up room for criticism will require him to bring shunned reformists back into the political sphere, and address the grievances of the young people who appear to feel they have no stake in the system. The intractability of doing all that has been the story of Iran all these years, and looks poised to remain so, regardless of the drama that periodically unfolds on the streets.