In the absence of any obvious trigger, the eruption in Iran as 2017 drew to a close took everyone by surprise, providing an unexpected signpost for the new year. Given that the first protest occurred in Mashhad, a city whose political and clerical elite is implacably hostile to President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, it is fairly probable that the initial demonstration was instigated by hardliners as part of the ongoing tussle between conservatives and reformists.
If so, the attempt backfired spectacularly as slogans proclaiming “Death to Rouhani”, ostensibly because of his government’s economic failures, were joined before long by shouts of “Death to the dictator” — a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and the airing of a broader array of grievances.
The protests spread rapidly across the country, but have thus far remained relatively small, with slogans reportedly ranging from wholesale denunciations of the clerical order and the expending of state resources on strategic initiatives in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza, to scattered calls for reinstating the monarchy.
In contrast to the so-called Green movement mobilisations of 2009, which were much larger but restricted mainly to urban centres, this time the marchers have tended to be working class rather than middle class. The regime’s initial response has also been rather less brutal than it was under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although Rouhani’s assurance that peaceful protests were perfectly legitimate has been accompanied by dire warnings from the interior minister as well as the dreaded revolutionary guard. A dozen deaths had been officially acknowledged by the start of the week, amid reports of hundreds of arrests.
Tehran, like everyone else, was caught on the hop, and evidently remains uncertain about the gravity of the threat it faces. Its reaction will largely depend on whether the seemingly leaderless and somewhat rudderless protests grow in size and intensity, or peter out within the next few days.
However, whether or not it finds wider expression on the streets in the short run, the discontent will not die out. It has existed at various levels of society since the 1979 revolution, when one form of brutal repression gave way in due course to another, often victimising the same segments of political opinion. Iran may be a democracy, unlike most of its neighbours, but its limits are prescribed by a self-selecting clerical elite. The social constraints, rooted in obscurantism that were imposed after 1979 have always been resented, and occasionally resisted, by substantial sections of society.
Inevitably, though, it’s the economics that takes precedence in everyday lives. Overall, conditions may have improved somewhat since the Ahmadinejad years, but the dividend expected from the nuclear deal with the West has never quite materialised for most Iranians. Inflation has been tamed, but vast disparities of wealth remain, amid widespread corruption and considerable youth unemployment. The austerity budget introduced last month promises little relief, let alone any structural changes that might reorient the economy towards the greater good.
Let’s not forget, though, that any serious attempt at reforms geared towards a more equitable society would encounter serious resistance from segments of the clergy and the Revolutionary Guard with well-entrenched economic interests. For instance, Maziar Bahari noted in The Washington Post last week that Mashhad is home to the Imam Reza shrine, which is not just a shrine but “a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that owns a number of industries, banks, hospitals and, of course, seminaries across Iran. The conglomerate runs under the supervision of … Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”
Predictably, the protests in Iran have cheered up the hostile regimes in the US and Israel, with Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu unable to contain their excitement. Although Trump accorded Pakistan the privilege of picking it as the target for his first tweet of 2018, in some of his last tweets of the preceding year he hailed Iranians for whatever they were up to — never mind that his administration’s actions have sharply reduced the reformists’ room for manoeuvre.
More alarmingly, senior Republican senator Lindsey Graham told Trump that tweets were not enough: “The Iranians are watching us in North Korea, and North Korea is watching us in Iran. We’ve got a chance here to deliver some fatal blows to really bad actors in 2018, but if we blink, God help us all.”
To the likes of him one might say: Unlike you, senator, North Korea has absorbed the lessons of the fatal blows to the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi. God help us indeed if the idiocy of the White House is compounded by congressional belligerence.
Not surprisingly, elements in Iran have already been suggesting, with no evidence, that the protesters are taking their cue from Saudi Arabia, Israel or the US.
Change in Iran would be welcome, although it isn’t imminent; but to be meaningful, it must come from within.