Although economic and political conditions in the country provide plausible reasons for protests, they remain on a small scale, making them incomparable to the massive protests in 2009.
Protests in Iran entered their seventh day on Wednesday, as thousands of people continued to take to the streets in cities across the country.
The demonstrations began last Thursday, after hundreds of people took to the streets in the city of Mashhad over economic hardship and alleged corruption. As the protests spread to other cities and towns, the economic focus of the protests shifted to political rallies.
About 21 people, including one police officer have died, and hundreds have been arrested. The government said it was temporarily restricting access to the Telegram messaging app and Instagram. There were reports that internet mobile access was also blocked in some areas.
Meanwhile, the protests have also drawn the attention of regional and international actors, some of which have voiced their support for the protests, leading some to point fingers toward international involvement.
Despite the widespread economic issues that could potentially spark protests, these have mostly been contained to smaller cities and towns and the numbers remain in thousands—nowhere near the size of the ones that shook the country in 2009, which were backed by reformists against former President Ahmadinejad.
Why did people start protesting?
The initial demonstrations were over financial grievances, fueled by the disappointment over the lack of economic growth after the 2015 nuclear deal with the US.
In 2015, Iranian reformist President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power two years prior, championed a nuclear deal with the US and five other world powers—the UK, Russia, France, Germany, and China—in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of some sanctions. The crippling international sanctions had isolated the oil rich-country, strained its economy and left it with a ballooning inflation rate.
The nuclear deal was welcomed and celebrated by many Iranians, who hoped that it would stabilise the economy and help normalise the country’s relations with other world powers.
The deal, however, did not deliver the expected results. Only a very small portion of the sanctions were lifted, and the economy has not improved.
After coming to power in January 2017, President Trump—who had expressed his strong objection to the Iran nuclear deal during his campaign—continued to increase sanctions against Iran, despite its compliance with the nuclear deal. He said the move was on the grounds that Iran was violating the “spirit” of the deal.
While economic indexes have improved under Rouhani's government, and the economy is no longer in dire straits, growth has still been too slow for an overwhelmingly young population.
Unemployment stood at 12.4 percent in the past fiscal year, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, up 1.4 points from the previous year. Meanwhile, youth unemployment reached 28.8 percent this year.
Last month Rouhani proposed another conservative budget to parliament for the Iranian year starting on March 21. The $104 billion budget was up about six percent from the plan for the current year—a cut in real terms at current inflation rates.
Such austerity has become increasingly unpopular among the public, as the economy has struggled despite the end of sanctions. Many foreign banks and companies remain reluctant to do business with Iran, partly because US President Donald Trump’s hard line on Tehran has deterred trade and investment.
In the meantime, the government backed down on its plans to raise fuel prices and promised to increase cash handouts to the poor and create more jobs in coming years.
How did economic grievances turn into political ones?
The Iranian government’s statements show that they think the situation was political from the start.
When protests started in Mashhad, hundreds of people went to the streets over economic grievances. But the next day, Iran’s first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri suggested that more conservative opponents of the government may be behind the demonstrations.
"Some incidents in the country these days are on the pretext of economic problems, but it seems there is something else behind them," Jahangiri said in comments carried by state broadcaster IRIB.
"They think by doing this they harm the government, [but] it will be others who ride the wave."
Jahangiri was referring to the tensions with the biggest endowment in Iran, located in Mashhad. The massive Astan Quds Razavi foundation is the most significant foundation in Iran, in a material and spiritual sense, with an estimated wealth over $15 billion, as of 2004. The endowment is currently chaired by Sayed Ibrahim Raisi, a close ally of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and one of Rouhani’s opponents, during the 2015 presidential elections. Rouhani had called for the taxation of the institution during the presidential race.
“It is said that some issues related to the [foundation], particularly reported pressures from the government caused such a demonstration against Rouhani,” says Hakki Uygur, President of the Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara.
“But you won’t find any of them in the streets today. As soon as the angle of the protests changed [from economic issues] they pulled out."
If they pulled out, who are the other demonstrators?
Although initial protesters linked with the foundation may have disappeared from the playing field, there are still people protesting over the economic conditions, venting their rage over high unemployment rates and savings that were lost after investments in unlicensed credit and financial institutions turned sour.
However, some of the protests took on a political dimension. The protests which were spearheaded by Khamanei's ally turned against him as people began shouting slogans against the leadership, calling for Khamanei to step down, blaming the clerics for corruption.
Some of the protestors are also questioning Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly the country's financial support for the Palestinians, the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, urging their government to focus on domestic economic problems instead.
Some demonstrators went further and shouted, “Reza Shah, bless your soul,” referring the former shah of Iran, who ruled from 1925 to 1941, whose Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979.
“Although the economic and political situation in Iran points to a suitable foundation for mass movements like in 2009, we are not seeing participation in large numbers,” Uygur said. “Furthermore, we are seeing that the people are most active in smaller cities, rather than big ones, like Tehran, with a population of nearly 15 million, which has such a limited number of demonstrators.”
“These beg several questions.”
Uygur says that, as an outside observer, it appears that the other groups that are demonstrating and that are very active on the ground are small, professional and political groups, with foreign dispositions or centres.
The most significant of those are the members of the People’s Mujahidin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which has been designated a terrorist organisation in Iraq and Iran, and one that was considered as such in the US, the UK and other parts of Europe until 2012, 2008 and 2009, respectively.
The PMOI, which has had bases in Iraq since the 1980s, began as a group of Islamist leftists opposed to Iran’s late shah, but fell out with the clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution. The group has advocated the overthrow of the Iranian supreme leader. That's why the new regime in Tehran and post-Saddam Baghdad recognise them as terrorists. They are mostly based in France now.
“From what we can follow on social media, the [PMOI] is definitely active," said Uygur.
On Monday, about a hundred people who appear to be members of the PMOI, held a demonstration in front of the White House in support of the ongoing protests in Iran.
“As of now, it appears that these demonstrations are supported by marginal groups and groups with international backing, rather than a movement in mainstream politics.”
Is there international support?
In his first reaction to the unrest on Tuesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, "In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatuses to create troubles for the Islamic Republic."
He did not mention any enemies by name, and said on his website that he would address the nation about the events "when the time is right".
But Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia were behind the riots.
"Saudis will receive Iran’s unexpected response and they know how serious it can be," Shamkhani was quoted as saying by the Tasnim News Agency in an interview with Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have grown in recent years, as Iran has become a key player in the Middle East. And as the Arab uprisings led to power vacuums in several countries, such as Syria and Yemen, they have become key areas of competition between Iran and regional giant and rival Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, its ally the US and Iran's regional foe Israel have also watched Iran’s growing influence with increasing alarm.
Trump, who has detailed a more aggressive approach to Tehran tweeted on Sunday that Iranians "are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism," and "will not take it any longer."
Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2017
On Tuesday he continued:
The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their “pockets.” The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
Finally on Wednesday, he said that the US would support the protesters:
Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
On Monday, newspaper Haaretz reported that the US had given Israel the “green light” to assassinate the commander of the Quds Forces, Qassem Soleimani, as it was agreed between the US and Israel that he was a threat to their regional interests. The Quds forces conduct foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, which is under the direct command of the supreme leader.
A few weeks earlier, a Saudi nationalist group released a fantasy animation showing a Saudi invasion of, and victory over, Iran. Towards the end of the video, Saudi troops capture a trembling and surrendering Soleimani.
Though such as assassination by Israel or anyone else seems unlikely at the moment, it is a sign of Iran’s influence in the region and how it is seen as a threat by Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Will the demonstrations grow?
“The protests may grow, but the older leaders are not currently supporting the protests,” says Uygur. “Furthermore, the demonstrations bear the marks of international actors—not even the reformists who are currently supporting the demonstrations.
“If there is no serious split, or if there is no strong reaction against the protestors—in other words if the police don’t use excessive force on the demonstrators, as of now, I can’t expect that the protests will grow by much.”
The state has a powerful security apparatus it can call upon. But, so far, it has refrained from dispatching the elite Revolutionary Guards and plain-clothed security forces as it did in 2009, relying instead on its police forces and partly on the Basij militia.
The Basij militia is a branch of the Revolutionary Guard, which is composed of volunteers from across the country and known for its loyalty to the Supreme Leader.
Brigadier-General Esmail Kowsari, deputy security chief of the Revolutionary Guard, said last week that the situation in the capital was under control and warned that protesters would face “the nation’s iron fist” if unrest persisted.
The 2009 protests following the disputed re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were eventually crushed by the state security apparatus, headed by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia volunteers.
Iranian authorities are treading cautiously in the face of mass protests, eager to take control, but worried that a crackdown could plunge the country into a crisis similar to the pro-reform unrest of 2009, which had threatened the order created by the 1979 revolution.
The government's main challenge is to find a way to suppress the uprising without provoking more anger. President Rouhani, who talked to Turkish President Erdogan on the phone on Wednesday, told his counterpart that he hopes protests in Iran will end in a few days.
With 21 people currently dead in the protests, including one police officer, and continuing protests, the next steps are not yet clear.