Iran: The Danger of Disconnection
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made an official statement at a security conference in Tehran on January 8, relaying his belief that the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia were responsible for the protests and increasing unrest currently plaguing Iran. Admittedly, it is not far-fetched to suggest that these nations might have influenced the events currently taking place in the nation. However, by placing emphasis on that particular point, he, along with many other Iranian officials, only furthered a recurring failure to properly account for the broader institutional issues that created the unrest in the first place. Although the “scale and ferocity” of the protests are, often, the aspects that receive the most attention, the governmental failures that initially fomented the turmoil, and continue to fuel it, must become the focus. In placing blame on external factors, and by failing to assess and rectify the growing disconnect within the government, and between the government and the populace, such Iranian officials will further heighten anxieties and intensify the turmoil. Simply stated, the current approach is worsening the situation, and will continue to do so.
The economic grievances held by many Iranians were the particular cause of the initial protests, which took place in Mashhad on December 28. The high prices of “basic goods,” along with the relatively high unemployment rate, certainly fueled initial tension and continue to be a major source of discontent within the Iranian public. What is more, the promises made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani throughout his tenure in office appear forgotten, for many people in the nation. This is arguably the deeper cause of the unrest, as certain factions within the Iranian public feel that their troubles stem from a leader that said things to get elected, while never fulfilling goals that the public truly wanted to see achieved. While his failure to achieve the desired changes is understandably upsetting, it is important to note that an internal disconnect within the Iranian governmental apparatus causes Rouhani’s inability to fulfill such goals. That disconnect is the product of an – arguably - institutionalized estrangement, which continues to hinder cohesive leadership.
In the specific case of President Rouhani’s regime, the issue begins with his politics. Rouhani bases his leadership in left-leaning politics and, for this reason he inspired many Iranians with his reformist vision in his first term. This vision continues to be a cornerstone of his policy. Still, the conservative religious establishment, which is led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not subscribe to Rouhani’s more progressive approach to leadership. Moreover, the establishment has, historically, chipped away at the legitimacy of presidential leadership. According to Crisis Group, past presidents experienced a similarly frustrating inability to implement change. Particularly, past Iranian leaders played similar roles in the same, problematic script: this entailed initially advocating strongly for their policies, followed by clashes with the conservative elements of the government. This phenomenon has repeated itself, and would appear to be recurring as President Rouhani faces significant pushback at present. Ultimately, this internal discord and disconnection within the current regime only serves to worsen societal discontent. Summarily, solving the grievances of the broader public might only be possible once the actual structure of the Iranian state itself is assessed, revised, and modernized. While the inclusion of multiple perspectives, whether those viewpoints are reformist, conservative, theocratic, or secular, should continue to be valued, the structural imbalance that allows one aspect of the apparatus to consistently stifle the other must be abolished.