I once travelled with a senior British government minister to Tehran. As we left Iranian airspace on the way home, with the RAF cabin crew providing restorative gin and tonics, the minister marvelled at how easy it had been to talk to his Iranian interlocutors. He was impressed, too, by Tehran’s streets, by the bustle and hum of an unexpectedly commercial metropolis.
Perhaps the minister had been expecting black-clad, revolutionary crowds punching the air and chanting “Death to America”. Shia Muslim clerics and their allies run the Islamic Republic of Iran. But in the capital, the call to prayer is nothing like as ubiquitous as it is in most Arab cities. Iran is more subtle and diverse than the stereotypes suggest.
The demonstrations around the turn of the year were the biggest since the Green Movement of 2009, when up to three million Iranians protested over president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allegedly fraudulent re-election. In 2009, our office was in a well-appointed apartment building in north Tehran, the more affluent end of the city. It is the kind of place where elegant people step out of expensive cars and into coffee shops for something expensive and frothy, more like a middle-class district in Europe than a patch of the Middle East.
But in Europe, elections don’t get stolen, and in 2009, millions of Iranians believed that had just happened. The demonstrations tailed of once the state had deployed its muscled, well-armed security forces and militias on the streets.
Men from the Basij militia, armed with heavy clubs, were positioned every ten yards or so down Tehran’s tree-lined avenues. They would glower at anyone who looked like a potential demonstrator. Behind them were uniformed squads from the security forces, with automatic weapons. Armed police in motorbike squads cruised around, breaking up crowds, intimidating anyone who felt brave enough to shout a slogan. When it was quieter in the evening, people would still go to their roofs to chant “God is greatest”, just as some of their parents protested against the Shah in advance of the 1979 elections.
In the last days of 2017, the protests could not have been more different from those in the “green summer” of 2009, which for a few weeks seemed to be changing Iran. It was not just that far fewer people took part. It was also how they started and spread: in the provinces, rather than Tehran.
The first demonstrations were in Mashhad, in the north-east. Mashhad is Iran’s second biggest city, and the site of the shrine of Imam Reza, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, which attracts large numbers of pilgrims. But the frothing lattes and shiny cars of well-off reformists in north Tehran do not feature in many lives in Mashhad, or the smaller cities, where young Iranian protesters gathered.
Ebrahim Raisi, a well-known hardliner, lives in Mashhad. He lost the last presidential election in May 2017 to the reformist Hassan Rouhani. Some have suggested that Raisi’s supporters might have started the first Mashhad protests to discredit Rouhani’s handling of the economy (the president had just published an austerity budget). It’s a theory, but what’s more important is that the protests swiftly spread, and were soon targeted at the entire system, up to and including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Everywhere, politics and the economy are intimately linked. Canny authoritarian states are able to buy off the frustration and anger created by years of political repression. To do that, however, they need money, and in Iran they don’t have enough. The economy has been badly damaged by years of sanctions, corruption and mismanagement.
A recent survey by BBC Persian found that, on average, Iranians have become 15 per cent poorer in the last ten years. Inflation is lower, but it is still a problem. So is corruption. President Rouhani promised to do more to solve this problem. But the demonstrations show that his efforts have been insufficient to satisfy those people who hoped for a transformative effect.
Across the Middle East the lack of jobs, particularly for the under-thirties, is scaring regimes, and creating rage that always simmers and sometimes boils. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran’s population rose dramatically. Now these children are grown up and they want jobs. In Iran, more than half the population of 80 million is under 30. Around a quarter of young people are jobless, more in some harder-hit regions. Most of those on the streets in the last few weeks have been young men. In traditional, generally religious societies in the Middle East, young males are not accepted as proper adults – real men – until they can afford to marry and have a family. That is impossible without a job.
The same distress is being felt across the Arab Middle East. Young people are a danger to regimes if they face bleak, impoverished, jobless futures. Unemployment drove them on to the streets during the Arab uprisings of 2011. In 2018, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is attempting to reform the economy and crack down on corruption because of the threat youth unemployment poses to his family’s power.
Iran is locked into conflicts with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, who have been calculating whether they can exploit this moment of Iranian weakness. The Iranians invest significant money in foreign and military policy. They back proxies and allies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and, increasingly, Yemen. That is unlikely to change.
President Trump might decide this is the time finally to revoke the UN and EU-backed deal that ended the prospect of a war over Iran’s nuclear arsenal. The abolition of that agreement is this year’s biggest risk in the Middle East.
Regardless of the deal’s fate, the leaders of Iran, starting with Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani, have a tremendous headache. The New Year demonstrations may well have subsided. But they are a warning of the dangers ahead if Iran cannot satisfy the expectations of a big, young and frustrated population.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief