Recent events in Iran have offered an opportunity for some members of the international community to project a Western-centric reading of the country’s future.
Yet, as US President Donald Trump praised peace protesters fighting the “corrupt government”, less romantic scenes unfolded in the streets of Iran as armed thugs sought destruction and physical confrontation. Alongside this, there were others with genuine motives. For some, street gatherings were an opportunity to expose their political views. Other participants were genuinely concerned citizens calling the government to act on the economy.
With such a variety of participants and different agendas at play, recent events cannot be labelled a call for freedom, but rather a temporary period of unrest in an undulating political landscape. I believe this is why the authorities didn’t crack down on the protesters in the same way they did in 2009, when the Green Movement uprising over the disputed presidential election was crushed. While these new demonstrators’ actions will have consequences, the Islamic republic was never at risk.
The protesters motivated by economic concerns descended into the streets in reaction to the government’s budget announcements in early December. These protests could perhaps have been avoided, had President Hassan Rouhani’s government managed working-class expectations in the run-up to the announcement.
The working class has been hit hard by inflation, by banks’ racket on illegal loans, and by a recent 40 per cent increase in the price of eggs (a staple food in Iran). Add to this concerns over the new budget announcements, and you have people prepared to take to the streets.
Alongside this, you have President Rouhani’s expressed desire to tackle corruption within charities. This threat led some supporters of the unsuccessful 2015 presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi – leader of a large charity – into the streets to demonstrate. It seems no coincidence that the riots’ epicentre was in Mashhad, where Raisi’s powerbase lies. His recent summons from the National Security Council seems to indicate further suspicion of his potential role in the protests.
Many in the West who believe that the riots were a call for freedom must have been surprised, not only by the restraint shown by the authorities but also the speed at which the protesters dissipated. The protests were over in a matter of days because they succeeded in achieving their goals. On 30 December, President Rouhani withdrew some of the most controversial aspects of the budget plan. This is a severe setback for the president, still yet to deliver on his government’s over-sold 2016 Nuclear Agreement economic outcomes, especially in terms of foreign investment. The protesters’ short-lived movement has succeeded in weakening the government, but it hasn’t impacted the Republic overall.
Many in the West, such as President Trump, have lent their support to the protests, largely in the belief that the riots are similar in nature to the 2009 protests. Yet, the two events are not comparable: in 2009, the protesters were mostly city-based and from the middle-class. They were peaceful and sought changes within the Islamic Republic. The Green Movement also offered a leadership alternative. The recent protesters have no obvious figurehead and their groups are too small and disparate to cause an upheaval, despite the use of violence. They also operate at or outside the margins of the Islamic Republic and their aim is disruption.
While those who instigated violence drew the bulk of the headlines, there were many among the protesters whose actions were peaceful and legitimate, largely working-class individuals from villages and small towns. Their success in indenting the policy of Rouhani’s government is reminiscent of the way that the 1999 students’ demonstration signalled troubles for the Khatami administration, which subsequently realised that the reforms agenda couldn’t be implemented fast enough to satisfy civil society while respecting Conservatives’ Islamic standards. Recent events could signify another kind of societal discontentment with regard to President Rouhani’s reforms.
It is not only President Rouhani’s economic programme that has been undermined by recent events. Iran’s engagement abroad is also criticised domestically, as it is believed the country’s money should be spent solely on Iranian citizens. Yet, the Republic is under pressure to remain strong at times of intense regional pressure. Saudi Arabia, its long-term foe, is only the tip of the iceberg: Isis is biding its time in Iraq and its Afghan branch is morphing into a powerful enemy. Additionally, some of the recent rioters were armed, raising legitimate questions of whether their funding and supply came from foreign sources. Both President Rouhani and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, have condemned the role of foreign “agents provocateurs”, an accusation supported by French President Emmanuel Macron.
So what happens after the storm? Although the riots have calmed down, their impact will continue to be felt in a country where the stakes are high. Both Rouhani’s government and the Conservatives will come out weakened in the public’s eyes as they back-track on an attempt at fixing the economy and tackling corruption. However, the authorities will gain credit for the restraint shown to the protesters and – in particular – the tight control they demonstrated over the ideological militia, the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards could still benefit from the situation in the future, claiming Rouhani’s government is weak and attempting to further strengthen their role. The Revolutionary Guards’ head commander has already mentioned the possible involvement of a former official, understood to be former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s former vice-president was recently condemned for economic crimes, and the authorities have never hidden their intention to prosecute Ahmadinejad on similar grounds.
What may have most surprised those clinging to the simplistic “freedom” narrative is the role of the ordinary citizens in Iran, who for the most part remained at home. In a post-2009 Republic, Iranians have learned to be content with the system they have. For now.
Dr Anicée Van Engeland is senior lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience at Cranfield University.