By Yossi Mekelberg*
It is too early to tell whether what we are witnessing on the streets of Iran is the closing chapter of the 1979 revolution, or merely the prelude to a repeat of the violent suppression of the 2009 protests. Unlike the demonstrations of nearly nine years ago, which were specifically against elections that were alleged to have been rigged, this time around there is no well-defined agenda and no obvious leadership.
Whatever the outcome of these disturbances, the regime in Tehran will be making a grave mistake if it ignores the readiness of so many thousands to take to the streets and risk their lives or at least their freedom, the many different concerns they are expressing, and the widespread nature of the demonstrations.
On Wednesday, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC), Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced the defeat of what he called “sedition” in the country.
But even if that were true for now, it will not make the reasons behind the demonstrations disappear unless the political elite in Tehran can demonstrate that it is willing and able to deal with the general malaise among ordinary Iranians. For the moment at least, that does not look like likely.
Comparing what is taking place right now on the streets of Iran with the events of 2009 is inevitable. Back then, it looked like the start of a widespread and prolonged uprising, with the well-defined political objective of reversing the outcome of an election characterized by considerable irregularities that had returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power with a much bigger majority.
The size and intensity of the protests, though peaceful in nature, put the regime under severe pressure, which was answered by the use of excessive force by the IRGC, the Basij militia and the Intelligence Ministry — all of which, to a lesser or greater extent, report to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The result was more than 120 demonstrators killed, many injured and 4,000 detained, many of whom were tortured.
In the time that has elapsed since the aborted Green Revolution, little has improved for the average Iranian. If then the protesters were generally young and from the urban middle class, this time it is mainly disgruntled young people in small towns and rural areas — the “working poor” as some call them — who have initiated the protests.
The demonstrations began not in the capital but in Mashhad, Iran’s second-biggest city, when hundreds of people complained of the high price of food and other basic goods.
The protests spread rapidly to around 50 cities and towns, including Tehran, in a clear indication of the nationwide mood of resentment.
The spontaneity of the demonstrations meant that rather quickly, anger at declining standards of living turned into a much wider criticism of the establishment, especially the political elite that for many decades has exploited and abused the economy to serve its own vested interests.
Even if the range of issues raised and the geographical reach of the protests are bound to worry the regime, the protests might end up uniting the different factions in government with the sole aim of protecting their own positions.
As long as the chanting on the streets concentrated on the economy, which is the domain of President Hassan Rouhani, the supreme leader could afford to stay quiet. But when it rapidly turned into cries of “Death to the Dictator” — targeting Khamenei himself — he came out and blamed foreign intervention, though with little evidence to back that claim.
The lack of any coherent strategy or message may well cause the current unrest to fizzle out with no achievements, and save the government from having to use further force.
But in the longer run, the multiple reasons for people’s dissatisfaction, along with the manner in which the country is governed and how it affects their daily lives, holds an even bigger threat of a popular uprising.
The economic hardships are evident, with rising inflation and constant hikes in food prices chipping away at people’s real income. Economic development is sluggish and youth unemployment stands at about 40 percent, despite repeated promises by the Rouhani government that the nuclear deal would result in job creation and consequently improve people’s living standards. Instead, the failing economy has forced more and more people, even from the middle class, to take multiple jobs in order to sustain their families.
It is not surprising, then, that ordinary Iranians are resentful of a government that instead of looking after their wellbeing is spending billions of dollars of public money on religious institutions, financing the IRGC, and indulging in political adventures abroad that further destabilize the region and compromise the country’s standing in the world.
All this at a time when it is expected that the new budget will include cuts in cash subsidies to the worse off in society, an increase in fuel prices, and plans to privatize education.
But disillusionment with the establishment is not confined to the economy. It is tied up with corruption, cronyism, incompetence and a costly foreign policy. It is also about the constant violation of human rights by the extreme clerical elite and their political associates, including restrictions on freedom of expression and association, gender-based discrimination and violations of the rights of minorities.
Khamenei conveniently blames outside enemies for the protests. Even if this were true, it would be imprudent of him and the rest of the regime to ignore the plight of protesters, because they are genuine in their complaints and need no inducement from the outside.
Nevertheless, this is not a regime that is capable of pragmatic compromises with its own people. So it would rather resort to oppressive means in an attempt to quell the demonstrations and bide its time, even if the long-term consequences are dire and at the expense of its own people.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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