Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > impact on women / resistance > Why Iranís protests matter this time

Why Iranís protests matter this time

Tuesday 15 December 2020, by siawi3


University students attend a protest inside Tehran University as anti-riot Iranian police prevent them from joining other protesters. AP Photo

Why Iranís protests matter this time

8 .01. 2018, 22:37 CET

Nader Habibi

Henry J. Leir Professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East, Brandeis University

A series of urban uprisings in Iran that began on Dec. 28 in its second-largest city shocked the countryís Islamic regime, as well as much of the world.

Although the Mashhad protests were spearheaded by conservative opponents of President Hassan Rouhani to discredit his economic policies, the organizers lost control of the crowd. Protesters angrily chanted slogans Ė such as ďLeave Syria alone, think about usĒ and ďDeath to HezbollahĒ Ė that were aimed at not only Rouhani but the entire Islamic regime.

In the days that followed, protests spread to 80 cities, leading to at least 22 deaths and over 1,000 arrests. On Jan. 8, Rouhani, who won a second term last May, said they signaled Iranians want not only a stronger economy but also more freedom.

While the government says it now has the situation under control, that doesnít eliminate the significance of the largest protests since 2009, when millions came out to oppose the outcome of that yearís presidential election. The government forcefully suppressed that uprising, and two candidates who disputed the results remain under house arrest.

Why have so many Iranians again taken to the streets and will these protests have a larger impact than those eight years ago? As a close observer of Iran, I believe there are several important differences between the protests today and in 2009 that can help us answer both questions.

Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani says the protests show Iranians are crying out for both economic and political change. Iranian Presidency Office via AP

Whatís behind the uprising

Not surprisingly, the conservative faction of the Islamic regime was quick to blame Iranís adversaries, namely the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. In contrast, reformists say that the protests are about economic grievances such as unemployment, inequality and corruption.

They do have a point. While the overall economy is growing again, and many indicators have turned positive in the past two years, the gains havenít been shared by all Iranians.

The economy grew 13.4 percent in 2016 after oil and financial sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement with the West, which increased the countryís oil and gas production.

The non-oil sector, however, expanded just 3.3 percent Ė a clear sign the economyís recovery has been slow in visibly improving peopleís living standards. Real incomes of many segments of the economy remain weak, and the housing and construction sector remains in recession.

Unemployment is still high, at 12 percent, particularly among young university graduates. But it is much higher in small towns and peripheral regions of the country, where many of the protests occurred, driven by concerns over inequality and poverty.

Under Iranís Constitution the supreme leader has broad powers, and even Rouhani has a limited ability to influence key policies, including those concerning the economy. Some key policies are entirely off limits, such as Iranís involvement in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. These campaigns, which are costing Iran billions of dollars every year, seem to be driving at least some of the protestersí anger.

Photo: Iranian worshipers chant slogans during a rally against anti-government protestors in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 5. AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Key differences

There are three key differences between todayís uprisings and those in 2009.

In 2009, the demands were political. The reformist faction of the ruling regime, which disputed the results of the presidential election, was the main actor in the protests. Current protests do not have a visible political leader and appear to be directed at the entire regime, including reformists. This is best demonstrated by one of the slogans frequently chanted by protesters, which roughly translates as, ďIt is over for all of you.Ē

Another difference is that the 2009 protests were centered around the capital Tehran and other major cities. While the recent demonstrations involve fewer actual protesters, they are spread over a much larger area of the country, including many small cities that suffer from underdevelopment and low incomes.

These primarily young protesters, including unemployed university graduates and low-income workers, are also outraged by the frequent reports of corruption and unfair accumulation of wealth among some government officials. Competing factions of the ruling elite have frequently exposed each othersí corruption, revelations that have alienated the marginalized segments of the population that are struggling with poverty and unemployment. Economic issues are far more important today than they were for the primarily middle-class protesters of 2009.

Finally, the U.S. response to the current uprisings has also been markedly different.

The Obama administration reacted with caution to the 2009 uprisings and refrained from openly cheering on the protesters, motivated by a fear that overt support would provoke a harsher crackdown.

In contrast, President Donald Trump and his State Department have actively supported the protesters, and the U.S. is trying to mobilize an international condemnation of the Iranian governmentís response. This initiative, however, faces strong resistance from China and Russia in the United Nations.

Concern about a stronger reaction from the Trump administration might explain the cautious and measured approach of Iranís security forces in confronting the current protesters. The response was more violent and brutal in 2009.

Photo: Activists in Los Angeles praise the Trump administrationís support for protesters in Iran. Concern about a stronger reaction from the Trump administration may be a factor in the regimeís more measured approach to the uprisings than in 2009. Reuters/Monica Almeida

What might change

The protestorsí focus on economic rather than political issues enables some moderate members of the regime to meaningfully address their grievances rather than being forced to keep silent or issue outright condemnations, as they did in 2009.

While condemning the acts of violence by some protesters, many of Iranís political leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have expressed sympathy for their economic concerns.

They have also led to some changes in fiscal budget and economic reform priorities. Planned increases in prices of fuel and bread, for example, have been suspended.

While itís encouraging that the government is reacting to protester concerns at all, stalling important economic reforms is not the right way to do it. These steps will surely be welcomed by lower-income Iranians, ensuring theyíre politically popular, yet they may lead to more hardship down the road by worsening the budget deficit and potentially fueling inflation.

Instead of keeping prices of essential items artificially low, which leads to considerable waste and inefficiency in the economy, it would be more effective to offer targeted subsidies to the poor while doing more to fight corruption and political nepotism, a primary cause of rising income and wealth disparities in Iran.

What wonít

Will the recent unrest serve as a wake-up call for the political elite that more needs to be done?

Unfortunately, an inefficient populist response is probably as far as the countryís supreme leader will be willing to go Ė at least for now. Protestersí more political demands, such as tackling corruption, limiting Khameneiís powers or reducing Iranís role in regional conflicts, are unlikely to be addressed anytime soon.

Iranís political system carefully screens candidates for public office and thus remains closed to ordinary citizens, leaving Iranians with few options for influencing government policy besides the streets. And neither political faction, reformist or conservative, has yet offered any practical solution for how to change that.

For most Iranians, however, corruption, poverty and economic inequality can not be addressed without serious reforms. And that suggests that while the most recent uprising may be winding down, similar uprisings are likely in the future.