Iranian Protests find Origins in Economic Stagnation, Government Corruption, and Foreign Spending
Iranian protesters took to the streets with anti-government chants in the largest government opposition movement since the 2009 Green Movement, when millions joined together in response to fraudulent elections.
The protests began with a demonstration on December 28 in Mashhad, and spread to more than 90 cities and towns across Iran. Last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leaked a proposed government budget which reduced cash subsidies to the poor and raised fuel prices, which may have been the tipping point for the protests.
Younger, working class people seem to make up the bulk of protesters. They are calling out government corruption and mismanagement, and expressing frustration towards economic stagnation and increasing income inequality. Tehran was mostly silent, likely because urbanites have benefited most from Rouhani’s economic policies.
Because the protests did not gain influence in Tehran, a key place for protesters if they truly want to threaten the government, the authorities have successfully quelled the protests by using security forces and blocking Internet access and social media. However, Hadi, the son of a working class family in Tabriz, said, “Nothing [the authorities] do will decrease people’s anger and frustration.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed protests on foreign influence: “In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic.”
President Rouhani, meanwhile, has said that “one cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations” and has called for the people’s economic, social, and security-related demands to be heeded. He has emphasized protesters’ concerns about corruption among clerics, and other unelected judiciary positions, perhaps to blunt criticism about the economy.
Although protesters were calling for both Rouhani’s and Khamenei’s deaths, Rouhani’s willingness to defend the right to protest may help him somewhat, but, as Hadi expressed, it will take a real change in economic policies and an improvement of government accountability to reduce people’s anger.
In the past few years, Iran has been setting itself up as a regional power, but the protests and persisting dissatisfaction with the government could hinder its rise to dominance. Iran has supported President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Shiite militias in Iraq fighting the Islamic State, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, interventions which have all helped Iran cement its power.
But Iran’s interventions were yet another of the protesters’ frustrations, who chanted things such as, “Leave Syria alone, think about us,” as they called on the government to focus on domestic problems.
Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, said that the protests call into question whether Tehran’s regional ambitions can be sustained. “Before the protests, you had this dominant narrative that Iran is unstoppable, Iran is undefeatable, Iran is as solid as a rock. The protests have undermined the posture of the Islamic Republic in the region, as the unrivaled superpower.”
Iran’s government must weigh their regional power with their people’s living standards. Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that the end of the protests doesn’t mean the end of dissatisfaction. If Iran’s government continues to direct money towards other nations, “the resentment toward the regime will remain and will eventually resurface in the future.”