As Iran continues to churn internally, the forces at play reveal unique fault lines in society and the revolution stagnates into deep economic, political and social crisis. Street protests — which have now spread to the “bazaari” class — are a deep, perhaps fatal wound to the Islamic Republic. The protests held since the waning days of 2017 and early 2018 represent the largest public display of discontent in Iran since before the 1979 revolution.
Unlike the 2009 Green Movement, which was largely a product of the urban middle-class youth in Tehran, today’s unrest reflects the economic grievances of the lower and working classes, which are alienated from Iranian institutional politics and are suffering from the consequences of a broken economy maintained by a broken ideology. The protests are driven by disaffected young people in rural areas, towns, small cities and larger urban centers, who are seizing the moment to express their frustrations with the country’s moribund system.
As the US imposes stiff new sanctions on Iran’s economy, the rial continues its death plunge. And, with prices soaring, the potential for economic collapse is becoming greater, thereby putting pressure on the government to act in a positive way, if it can.
Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, the city’s central meeting place and traditional business center, has been filled with tens of thousands of angry protesters nearly every day. Anti-government slogans including, “the enemy is here. They (the regime) lie that it is the US” are new and gaining momentum. Importantly, the bazaari class played a crucial role in the 1979 Islamic revolution, when traders joined forces with the clergy to overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
To be sure, the country is entering a phase of discontent with the existing regime and its Vilayat-e Faqih. The protests are getting louder and more violent and increasingly targeting the regime itself. No longer are protests about America and Israel, they are instead about the ills of the regime, foreign adventures in Syria, and the plight of the Palestinians. These voices are organic and indicative of the rapidly growing unhappiness with the system. They indicate a desire for change as the current Iranian economic model, managed by the clerical elites and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, begins to crumble.
Importantly, protests and the closures of bazaars throughout the country were at the heart of not only the 1979 revolution, but also the Tobacco Protests and concession of 1890-91 and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to 1911. Make no mistake, the manifestations of discontent throughout Iran are a direct challenge to the country’s leadership and governance style, which cannot continue as normal.
There is more: The growing generational gap between the Islamic state and the Iranian youth, particularly young women, has never been wider. In the last 25 years, Iran has been on a course of major political and societal evolution, as the increasingly young population is becoming more rebellious and secular.
The government’s authorization to the IRGC to begin mass arrests will only beget further violence. At the same time, the crunch over money will continue to divide the country. As riots in cities around Iran reveal, despite systematic arrests or killings by the authorities, the tensions between society and regime will continue.
Iranians are now unreconciled with their theocratic state — it is a wholesale rejection. To them, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers did not establish an Islamic theocracy in order to safeguard a revolution; they made a revolution in order to establish an Islamic theocracy. Importantly, the widespread waves of protests that seem to erupt in Iran in roughly 10-year cycles suggest the gradual failure of Iran’s theocratic state.
As the Trump administration pushes for cutting off Iran from the international financial system, the ability for the Iranian state to maintain order will become increasingly difficult. While President Hassan Rouhani called on the country to “remain calm,” calls for him to resign or reshuffle his economic and diplomatic team are getting louder as the days go by. Rouhani’s opponents within the ruling establishment plan to use the economic crisis as a launching pad for holding early presidential and parliamentary elections.
But, in the coming months, many factories will close down and tensions will build between those who are affiliated with the working class and youth versus those allied to the clerical elite. It is almost as if the seeds of resistance as represented by an amorphous and leaderless revolt in Iran are being spread quickly due to collapsing legitimacy in a time of dramatic change.