By Richard Kraemer*
(FPRI) — The current protests throughout Iran are unprecedented in its post-revolutionary history. They are driven primarily by a popular sense of economic indignity borne of decades of mismanagement, rampant cronyism, low oil prices, and tough sanctions; in other words, the catalysts are not ideological.
The protests are spread across the country, remarkably making their way to the capital, rather emanating from it. They are at present leaderless, unlike 1979 or 2009. And distinct from the latter year’s Green Movement, when perhaps less than one million Iranians possessed smartphones, over 47 million now have them at their disposal. When the revolution eventually comes, it will be streamed.
A number of Arab autocrats were brought down in comparable circumstances. Endemic corruption. Social injustice. Egalitarian grassroots movements connected through social networks and other exciting tools of information communication technology. Yet, as time has shown, the courageous struggles of millions of Arab peoples were met with mixed success, if not abject failure in Egypt and Syria. Reflections on those events known as the Arab Spring would be worrying if used as a prism foretelling the Iranian regime’s imminent collapse.
And collapse it will—but not just yet. Rather than pointlessly reviving the genuine, but unwarranted, headiness of the Summer of ’09, for now, a more sobering view best be taken with considerations of what is different this time.
“It’s the economy…”
The unmet economic expectations of many Iranians have boiled over at last. President Hassan Rouhani had widely foregone the gratuitous and unsustainable subsidy programs of his predecessor. (Former President Mahmood Ahmadinejad was uniquely astounding in his unswerving ignorance of basic economics.) Yet, Rouhani was able to do so with the implicit belief of the Iranian people that, nuclear deal with the West secured, the economy would open up with attendant wealth generation. To the questionable extent that it did, there was no trickle down. Thus, it is worth noting Iran analyst Mohammed Ali Shabani’s prescient application of the J-curve theorem, whereby economic hardship crystallized in unmet expectations tips into civil strife.
To argue with certainty that something other than pitifully poor economic performance is the primary driver behind the past week’s demonstrations would be disingenuous. Recognizing that the 20th century’s major revolutions were largely rooted in cries for greater economic equality, they were coupled with political demands based in an ideology that would theoretically deliver social justice as understood by the discontented.
Accordingly, the economic malcontent that led to the 1979 Revolution was shared among its competing factions of liberal democrats, leftists, and Islamists, yet each with their own specific concept of governmental (e.g. political) remedy. And while poor standards of living were a factor in the Green Movement’s broad appeal, 2009’s protestors initially took to the streets calling “Where’s my vote?”—a political appeal, first and foremost.
The absence of genuine political demands at present suggest that regime change is secondary, so don’t be misled by chants of “Death to the Dictator.” As one analyst aptly noted,
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.”
Or, it could simply mean, “Bring the prices of eggs and such under control, some real job opportunities, and a little less isolation and we’re cool.”
It is no coincidence that these rather politically rudderless demonstrations lack central leadership. Among other things, people look to leaders for solutions, i.e. alternative approaches to fix what isn’t working. Absent such an individual(s), the ball sits in the regime’s court as they scramble to craft a mollifying response, one that may be acceptable to the majority of demonstrators while preserving the state’s post-revolutionary foundations.
No Rest for the Wicked
Can the regime apply a Band-Aid big enough to finagle an extended lease-on-life? Perhaps so, but one increasingly short term as indicated by the other two unprecedented—and interconnected—aspects of the past week’s uprisings.
First is the geographic expanse of the protests, underlining their economic impetus. This is a level of discontent that can’t be explained away as whining by “disloyal” urban elites. Iranians of all classes are increasingly fed up not only with a weak economy, but also with a rapidly diminishing water supply, endemic air pollution, and the state’s deplorable response to last November’s earthquake, not to mention a bulging youth demographic desiring greater individual freedoms.
So while some Basij—a paramilitary militia under Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps direction—goon may club a hipster for being part of an imaginary Fifth Column, it is conceivably harder for him to beat a poor farmer demanding water for his crops. Nor might a small town policeman be inclined to shoot at a neighbor (cousin?) on the pretext that he or she, demonstrating for the sake of job opportunity, is actually an agitator in some fabricated imperialist plot. There still exists among many Iranians a sense of human decency that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran can’t and will never control. This scares them to death and rightfully so.
Second, the regimes’ desired command control of communications is becoming increasingly illusive. The once-touted “Halal Net” has yet to effectively block Iranians from multiple avenues to unadulterated information. Unable to rollback the remarkable expansion of smartphone usage and the mass dissemination of information that they enable, the Iranian government is decreasingly capable of isolating its citizens from one another, much less them from the world beyond its borders. To place the potential impact of these means of communication in perspective, hypothesize how much shorter the USSR’s life span would have been had Soviet citizens such accessibility to information and contact.
Returning to the present: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not make the grave error of showing empathy and a willingness to negotiate. He watched the Shah do so in late 1978 and then witnessed the opposition remorselessly go for emperor’s jugular. Tragically, he and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps will probably soon respond with as much torturous and murderous brutality as necessary to quell the streets. As effective as that tactic may be, it could drive Iranians to nationwide strikes, an especially effective maneuver that worked effectively in the late 70s. Should the wheels of the economy halt, then perhaps a more conciliatory tack may be taken by the Supreme Leader.
Considerations of the waning years of the Soviet Union are warranted, much more so reflections on the Arab Spring. Not only are more and more citizen becoming gravely dissatisfied with their government’s rule, but some regime elites (perhaps even Rouhani himself) see the system as untenable. Challenged are the merits of regional power projection at the price of their most pressing domestic needs. The economic model is hollow, and the regime’s ideology is bankrupt.
Time is on the side of Iran’s opening. Those who participated in the ’79 Revolution and the hundreds of thousands more who lost their beloved in the barbaric war with Iraq that followed are slowly passing on. Replacing them are generations with no connection to those sacrifices, instead staring at the dysfunction surrounding them, detached from their forefathers’ emotional baggage. They will unequivocally demand a different kind of life. And I’ll wager that a technocrat will lead them. But it will be a bit longer for the next revolution’s uploads.
About the author:
*Richard Kraemer is a Fellow of FPRI’s Eurasia Program and formerly senior program officer for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey at the National Endowment for Democracy. Previously, he oversaw projects in the aforementioned countries and the Levant at the Center for International Private Enterprise. Earlier, he further taught and researched at the Jagellonian University in Poland. He is also an affiliated expert of the Public International Law and Policy Group, having advised the governments of Georgia and Montenegro.
This article was published by FPRI.