The Politics Behind the Protests in Iran
The demonstrations have been triggered by economic factors but a look at the protest slogans, and the potential figures backing the protests, shows that there might be more to the unrest.
The ongoing demonstrations in Iran continue to be discussed both internationally and inside Iran. The demonstrations first started in the city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, a place considered holy for Shias.
The protests were against the Rouhani government and the worsening economic conditions in the country and quite quickly took an overtly anti-government overtone.
Mashhad is a conservative base and is home to the ultraconservative Ayatollah Alamul Huda — a close associate of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who is known for his fierce opposition to Rouhani.
Therefore, accusations by the First Vice-President of Iran Eshaq Jahangiri, shortly after the start of the protests that conservatives are behind the movement, without giving any specific names, must be read within this context.
It is noteworthy that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is also accused of having a hand in the protests.
Iran has witnessed numerous mass demonstrations over the last few decades. There were the student protests in July 1999 in Tehran, during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. And then the Green Movement of 2009, which was on a much broader scale in terms of issues, and the number of demonstrators. This illustrates that in Iran the tradition of street protests and mass demonstrations is not an alien or extraordinary event.
The current circumstances in Iran mean that there are plenty of indicators which could spark a new wave of protests. Chronic problems that can no longer be neglected, such as the deteriorating economy, bribery, corruption and the failure of Rouhani to fulfil his promises in his second term.
In addition to that, the frustration caused by the Trump administration's de facto invalidation of the nuclear deal of 2015 from which Iran had great hopes reveals how challenging economic and political conditions have become for ordinary Iranians.
Now Trump’s determination to slap new sanctions on Iran based on the latter’s ballistic missile program should also be added. Amidst these hardships the disillusionment created by the bankruptcy of several financial institutions and the parliament’s decision to raise oil prices by 50 percent has added to social tensions.
There are other reasons causing popular dissatisfaction. After the controversial elections in 2009, reformist politicians have been largely side-lined. Former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Kourrubi — considered as the leading figures of the Green Movement — are still under house arrest.
The Iranian political establishment is riddled with serious tensions. There is the continuing dispute between former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani and his brother Ali Larijani, current Spokesman of the Parliament, and the imprisonment of former advisors of Ahmadinajad.
Then there is the tacit and unnamed accusation levelled by Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, against Ahmadinajad as the orchestrator of the recent protests which led to 20 deaths. These tensions show that while the latest bout of protests will end, internal political machinations will likely continue.
It is not certain to what extent the internal tension triggered the demonstration, but another notable aspect of the protests are the slogans about Iran’s foreign policy.
A large part of the Iranian population thinks that Iranian military adventurism and an interventionist foreign policy has resulted in the poor economic conditions that the country faces.
During the recent protests slogans like "neither Gaza and Lebanon, my life is for Iran” were heard. These chants were also heard in the 2009 protests, indicating that people no longer want to endure the costs of such policies.
Likewise, the slogans of “leave Syria look after us” shows discontent amongst some segments of society at the intense intervention in Syria and the financial burden it has caused, despite state propaganda to convince people otherwise.
The uncertainty in domestic politics and the extent to which the strife is triggered by the movement is unknown at this time.
Nevertheless, the most notable aspect of the demonstrations have been the slogans favouring Reza Shah, the previous King of Iran and those directly against the Islamic Revolution and Khamenei. Although there are fundamental objections and criticism from the Iranian people about their country’s social and political conditions, the critics are heavily oriented towards a more democratic and prosperous Iran.
Therefore, one can talk of a link between these slogans and the belief in some, that things in the country were better during the time of the Shah. It is not surprising that the slogans that target the Revolution or invite the resignation of Khamenei are frequently mentioned during these demonstrations.
From their inception, the protests were compared to the events of 2009. There are, however, stark differences between the two.
Unlike the Tehran-based Green Movement in 2009, these demonstrations were mostly present in smaller cities, and unlike the Green Movement, it is leaderless, which generates ambiguity about the goals of the protestors.
Moreover, the calls for armament and a fight against the Iranian security forces provoked a reaction from many people and raised concerns about the transformation of peaceful protests into an armed conflict.
Contrary to expectations, the reluctance in large population centres for people to participate in the demonstrations, especially the cities of Tabriz where strong minority movements are located, has surprised many observers.
Indeed, the Revolutionary Guards have already declared that further demonstrations have been stopped. Although this approach is hasty and exaggerated, it is true that the number of demonstrators on the streets is in serious decline.
Support for protests has dampened since the US and Israeli governments came out in support of the protests. Furthermore, the protests were not supported by the traditional political actors in Tehran and without any leadership the result is inevitably that they will quieten down.
This article was first published at TRT World on January 12, 2018.