The latest Iranian demonstrations: some clues for the future

Whoever read any news regarding the latest Iranian demonstrations has definitely heard the phrase “economic issues” as a base for popular discontent or that the uprisings are due to unemployment and inflation. This is all true, but beyond these general words it is interesting to see what has been happening in more detail.

First of all, the people expected that things would have got substantially better after the Iran Deal, but a couple of years has already passed, voters did give trust to Hassan Rohani once again in 2017 elections and they are not satisfied. According to World Bank data, official youth unemployment is around 27%, but it is realistic to think that it is higher. Secondly, the issues regard the highly state-controlled Iranian economy, which has bought the consensus of the lower classes thanks to systems of subsidies, but a deadly mix of mismanagement, falling oil prices and sanctions show that it is not sustainable anymore. Not much differently to what has happened in Europe in the last years, Rohani’s government is bringing austerity to Iran, too.

At the end of November, the price of bread in public bakeries was raised by 15%. In December, the Iranian Parliament discusses the State budget for the following year and a series of unpleasant news did not help to calm down people’s frustration (the news I found date to 19th of December, just nine days before the start of the demonstrations). The price of petrol and diesel was increased by 50%. Along with it, the hateful tax that has to be paid by Iranians to go out of the country (it has to be paid by everybody, with some exceptions depending on the reason of the travel) passed from 750 000 rials to 2 200 000 rials. For the second exit the base fare has to be increased by 50% and from the third exit onwards the fee is doubled (4 400 000 rials). With the current exchange rate (3rd of January 2018, 1€ = 43 273 rials), we are speaking about a tax that can amount up to 100€ per person. Let’s add that many families have one or more expat relatives who come to Iran at least once a year: it is a tax on emigrated sons and daughters who left Iran because of its harsh living conditions. It would be a relevant amount of money even for the average European, so it is clear that its weight on the Iranian income is much bigger. Finally, the IMF has urged Iran to reform its banks.

Hassan Rouhani and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at the Assembly of Experts.

But it is not enough. A law proposal regarding a reform of the cash subsidies given to the poorest classes of the society was presented shortly before the rallies. If it passed, it might involve 30 million people, according to the speculations of news agencies. It is realistic to think that it is somehow due and necessary, because probably at least part of those funds was given to families who did not need them, but in the general context it may cause that even some families who are real in need would lose also the little help they would receive from the government. All of this is accompanied by scandals regarding funds which are directed, instead, to the foundations governing the Iranian economy.

The environmental situation of the country is pretty disastrous and it would have been one of the greatest occasions to improve the life of the people

Given this recent financial context, it is important not to forget the earthquakes that hit Iran and Iraq. Many houses built during the years of presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad allegedly fell because of the poor quality of the materials used, rather than because of the shakes. The southern part of the country suffers heavy sandstorms and low-intensity turmoil due to underdevelopment, and in many other cities schools were temporarily closed because of air pollution. The environmental situation of the country is pretty disastrous and it would have been one of the greatest occasions to improve the life of the people, even through foreign investments and technologies, in case of a real and proper removal of sanctions.

This is the background we should keep in mind to understand the delicate moments which Persia is going through.

The start seems to have happened in Mashhad, the second biggest Iranian city after the capital, located in the North-East of the country, on the 28th of December. A religious centre, thanks to the presence of the Imam Reza’s shrine, that is currently governed by Ebrahim Raiisi, a former rival of Rohani during the last year’s elections. It is possible that, as reported by other sources, the demonstrations started on these purely economic bases on incitement of the conservative political movements. It is typical that whoever is in charge in the government and is not the dearest pupil of the establishment, but tries to be slightly more independent, just like Rohani, is often victim of the disapproval of the more extreme factions, which do not hesitate to cause problems to him, in order to gain more consensus in the electoral rounds. However, these demonstrations turned political and anti-establishment in a surprisingly fast way.

The slogans chanted give us a glimpse of what is the objective of the popular anger. Some of them even called the Shah to come back, some others express regret for the Islamic Revolution, other more put reformists and conservatives on the same level warning them that their time has gone.

Protests in Teheran, 2009.

It was also the first time since 2009 that the protests are so prolonged. However, there is a series of noteworthy differences to take into consideration. First, beside the fact that there are no elections in the short-term, everything finally did not start in Tehran, but in another city which is usually and correctly deemed more conservative and less western-minded of the capital youth of nine years ago. This time, they do not only involve the highest layers of the society, but the anger is more inclusive. The numbers of the participants seem having been still far from the ones of the Green Movement, but in my opinion the involvement of the whole country is a striking difference that may let us expect more frequent episodes like these in the future. Even Qom and Esfahan, two more places that are definitely not so reformist-friendly like Tehran, were not spared.

There were no leaders and no organised movement, unlike in 2009 when the demonstrators supported personalities which were deeply tied to the establishment

Secondly, this is the first time that the royal family is called in the chants, however I do not think that it is a really widespread feeling. Many young people who did not live under the rule of the Pahlavi’s now look at those times in a highly idealistic way, but those who did may not agree – let’s not forget that it was anyway a harsh rule from the point of view of political rights. Westerners might look only at the nice girls wearing western-like clothes in the ‘70s, but beyond those pleasant pictures the rest of the country was quite forgotten. If a people starts a revolution, there is always a very pragmatic reason which is not tied to clothes, even if such revolution is then hijacked by a more organised movement like the one of Khomeini.

A further difference is that there were no leaders and no organised movement, unlike in 2009 when the demonstrators supported personalities which were deeply tied to the establishment (Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, under house arrest since 2011). Some videos broadcast on Telegram showed that some security forces did not obey to the orders and actually more slogans did call for the soldiers to join the demonstrations. They were isolated events, but we might expect that even if the regime manages to suffocate the uprisings also this time, the next elections will be a newer occasion to challenge the system. This is exactly also the first time that the system itself is put in doubt and I think that these days will remain in the memories of the people.

The Leader Parting the Sea of People (iranwire.com)

Moreover, the statements made by Mohammad Khatami, former leader of the country in the ‘90s, and Rohani risk to alienate even that hopeful part of the population who believed in voting. Khatami called the wave of regret for voting Rohani “a plot”, while the president called the demonstrators “a small minority which is easy to amass”. No worse choice of words could be made, because some comments on social networks felt those words as a comparison to trash. Indeed, people are starting to realise that the mechanisms of the elections do not really allow any relevant change to happen, because of the preventive vetting of the candidates, while up to even last year the affluence of voters has always been quite high and which is what allowed Rohani to start his second mandate.

The number of participants is to be taken highly into account and I repeat that it seems they were far from 2009, but this smaller amount people showed the world unprecedented hints that will have to be combined with the  allegedly worsening health conditions of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

For what concerns the rest of the international community, who knows Iran at least at a superficial level can understand that Iranians, even the pro-Western ones, do not want foreign meddling in their affairs. Netanyahu seemed to have showed to have it in mind and he asked his ministers to stop expressing support for the demonstrators, but he recently praised the events and according to some scholars it was a mistake. If there is any support, it must absolutely be covert. The risk is that people who express legitimate claims play the role of the traitors and the regime would not hesitate to exploit it as a propaganda tool that is highly effective on the public opinion of the country. For sure, analysts should be ready to check the next months or years, also because these episodes and the disappointment caused by the reformists, who showed their ‘establishment face’ like never before might have consequences on the usually high turnout recorded during elections. Since this is already the second mandate of Rohani, he will not be eligible as a candidate (2021). This might imply higher turnout on the conservative side and so a more extremist president, but on the other hand the anger of the former-hopeful voters who died and got hit for Mousavi and gave trust to Rohani may have an impact in terms of turmoil. In the end, they probably realised that the Iranian regime cannot be changed, unless it changes itself – or it is eradicated as a whole. The system of limited elasticity which allowed it to survive for almost forty years might have been continuing its crisis. I consider that it started in 2009, but even if this last case was not so striking, it could be a small step toward a slow end. I would dare not to exclude either the risk of a sort of coup by the Pasdarans on the rest of the regime, sooner or later, because of the progressive secularization of the Iranian population, in order to keep the ‘deep State’ (and their profitable businesses), but through a less religious and more militar ‘lifting’. Stay tuned.

Chiara Maggi

Graduating student of Law at Bocconi University. Former Intern at the Italian Embassy to the Russian Federation. Speaker of Persian and basic Russian. Great passion for the ethnolinguistic situation in the former Soviet sphere.

Chiara Maggi

Chiara Maggi

Graduating student of Law at Bocconi University. Former Intern at the Italian Embassy to the Russian Federation. Speaker of Persian and basic Russian. Great passion for the ethnolinguistic situation in the former Soviet sphere.

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