February 26, 2018
By Vahid Yucesoy* @vahid_yucesoy for iStrategic
How it started
During the beginning of the year 2018, Iran was rocked by anti-regime demonstrations that took the clerics in power by surprise. It all started when the hardliners in the city of Mashhad attempted to organize a demonstration in order to exploit the rampant discontent against the economic performance of the moderate president, Rohani. However, soon afterwards, the hardliners lost control as protesters started chanting slogans against the entire political establishment and in favor of the separation of religion from the state. In a matter of one day, the protest movement spread all over the country, especially in provincial Iran where unemployment has been rife. At its peak, the protests spread to more than 100 small and medium-sized towns in addition to certain big cities including Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Esfahan.
Reasons for the protest
For several years, the provincial centers in Iran have been hard hit by economic mismanagement, environmental degradation, unemployment, and a lack of investment by the government. There have already been scattered protests organized by various labor associations, workers, and teachers in front of the Iranian Parliament, which were violently repressed by Iran’s security forces.
Moreover, recently, various financial cooperatives affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards defaulted on their debts, leaving tens of thousands of their clients without their savings overnight. To date, not a single person has been brought to justice, nor clients been fully compensated. The crisis occurred because these cooperatives have been functioning as mini banks without following the standard rules and regulations. Their clients have been demonstrating for months to get their voices heard all over the country, especially in Mashhad, where the protests started.
The expected relief from sanctions has yet to trickle down to these provincial towns, adding to the disillusionment of the population. Against this background, when Rohani shared the details of Iran’s budget whereby Iranians discovered how unaccountable institutions like the Revolutionary Guards and the religious foundations (called Bonyads) have been siphoning off large chunks of money while ordinary Iranians had been told to exercise belt-tightening, this created fertile ground for demonstrations and it was a matter of time for such anger to be visibly expressed by the downtrodden stratum of the population in the streets.
What was unusual?
There are at least three distinctive features of these demonstrations: First of all, they have been staged by the lower classes, which the regime had long assumed were its staunch supporters. Historically, these small towns had been the ideological bastion of the Islamic Republic. The fact that these people chanted the most radical slogans against the Islamic Republic (ex: “Down with the Islamic Republic”, “we don’t want an Islamic Republic”) took the authorities as well as Iran experts by surprise. Secondly, the sheer magnitude of protests and the spontaneity by which they spread all over the country without a clear leader surprised many people. Third, since the revolution of 1979, this is the first time that these conservative towns as well as labor associations have demonstrated against the regime in such a spontaneous manner.
Is stability restored?
In the wake of 10 days of demonstrations, the security forces arrested more than 5000 people while many towns, including Tehran, are reporting a heavy presence of security personnel deployed in the streets. On the whole, despite some exceptions, both reformists affiliated with Rohani as well as hardliners were united on the necessity of repressing the protest movement and arresting protesters. While sporadic protests are still underway, the fact that the Islamic Republic can no longer rely on the support of the downtrodden class, at least in the short term, is a direct threat to the stability of the regime. Although protests have been quelled, these protests have emboldened other types of civil disobedience within the Islamic Republic. Chief among them is the ongoing movement led by women against the country’s four-decade old compulsory veiling law. There have also recently been protests led by Sufi Dervishes against the arrest of their leaders. The Sufis resistance to the authorities and their willingness to fight in the streets are signs that the regime is dealing with an increasingly emboldened opposition.
In order to stave off greater protests and the collapse of the system, the regime needs to find political, social, and economic compromises. However, such compromises are also likely to weaken the rigid power centers of the Islamic Republic such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader. Not resorting to reform, however, makes the possibility of further future protest increasingly likely, threatening the stability of the Islamic Republic.
The economic toll of the fallout of these protests has been enormous. The atmosphere of uncertainty has accelerated the RIAL’s fall. In just six months, RIAL lost more than 25% of its value against the American dollar as Iranians have been rushing to exchange their RIALS for American dollars. The economic consequences of the currency’s depreciation can also trigger further protests.
*We welcome written pieces, note however that the opinion expressed is of the author.