The seemingly spontaneous and leaderless protest that erupted in Iran’s second largest city of Mashhad on December 28, 2017 took many by surprise as it spread across several towns and cities within no time. Assuredly the simmering discontent and pent up frustration of the common Iranians that resulted in the protest has roots in socio-economic disparities and lack of personal freedoms in the Islamic Republic. The recent cuts in subsidy on various goods and services and hike in oil prices seem to have acted as the necessary trigger.
There is something intriguing about this protest that the participants not only target the elected government and its policies but the entire religio-political establishment with chants like death to the dictator, referring to Iran’s supreme leader. This reflects the deep resentment of Iranians against the theocratic structure of the government which appears restrictive and dismissive as far as democratic rights are concerned.
Moreover, various opaque cultural and religious entities controlled by conservatives and their heavy toll on budget appear to have further disillusioned common Iranians about the utility of the existing structure of government and power distribution. The reformist and moderate President Hassan Rouhani himself had expressed displeasure with this fact in the past. Hence, the protest has come as a blessing in disguise for him to further his reformist agenda. However, the counter protests that ensued on Friday in support of the theocratic regime and government, makes it confusing and surely a daunting task for reformists to take any drastic measures in this regard.
But this is not the end of it. Indeed, Iran’s regional ventures for dominance in various theatres of war in the conflict ridden Middle East has surely taken a high toll on national exchequer. Iran’s growing military and political clout in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq has come at a costly price and not many Iranians are happy about the fact that the money which needs to be spent on their development is being diverted towards Iran’s proxies in the region.
Yet another important thing to factor in while considering the causes of the protest are the high expectations of economic benefits attached to the Iran nuclear deal. Although the deal lifted several of the US-led international sanctions in return for crippling limitations imposed on Iran’s controversial nuclear program but it seems that benefits accruing from the deal have not trickled down or have failed to meet the raised up expectations of the people.
Worse enough, the potential abrogation of the nuclear deal by Donald Trump in mid-January, which he has already decertified, provides no ray of hope either. On the contrary, chances are such that Donald Trump may use the government’s crackdown on the protestors as a pretext to kill the nuclear deal. Rest assured, tweets and statements by Iran’s rivals namely the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia in support of the protests are bound to be viewed with suspicion and contempt as their support threatens to discredit the genuine demands of the masses on the streets.
In the case of Donald Trump, doing nothing is better than doing anything and the same goes for his tweets in support of the protest. Thus, the apparently sympathetic statements by Iran’s rivals like Trump clearly backfired as they provided the regime in Iran a pretext to suppress the protest by terming it as an act of enemy and the protestors as agents of the enemy. However, Iran needs to realize that pointing fingers at foreign powers is very unlikely to solve the myriad of socio-economic problems the country faces.
In conclusion, though largely subdued as of now after more than a dozen people being killed and hundreds arrested, the protest in Iran has a lesson for Iran’s ruling elite that Iran will find it hard to sustain its regional dominance at the cost of the lives of common Iranians. Indeed, state security is dependent on human security of its populace and not the other way round. It is time for the ruling elite to reassess their priorities and policies in favor of Iran and Iranians only. Only an internally strong Iran can help achieve any regional and global aspirations that the Islamic Republic might have. Continued denial of fundamental democratic rights to citizens, increasing defence expenditures, and backing proxies for regional dominance may result in irrevocable losses as in the case of dismemberment of Soviet Union.
*Nisar Ahmed Khan, Research Affiliate at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad