More Than Regime Change, Iranian Protesters Want a Decent Job
Events in the Middle East like the Iranian protest are happening so fast that analyses of the various developing situations lose their value within hours, instead of in months or years. Until a few days ago, the main concern about the Islamic Republic of Iran was whether the United States and Israel were planning to launch a war against it.
Yet as 2018 begins and Tehran ponders how best to defend itself against external enemies, it finds itself confronting an intense wave of social protests. Has the so-called “Arab Spring” that created storms in the political climate since 2011 now reached Iran? Is this an “Iranian Spring?”
In fact, Iran has experienced frequent protests throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. They have often produced regime change through a combination of internal factors and external interference, which is why they are so important now.
Many Americans know very little about Iran, including President Donald Trump. It is a complex but sophisticated country which is closer to achieving democracy than most of its Middle Eastern peers.
The Ayatollahs Still Face Risks
The Islamic Republic of Iran is more economically self-sufficient than its Arab neighbors, having had to confront decades of debilitating sanctions. Still, even after the fall of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the 1978-1979 revolution, education has remained a priority.
It’s important to recognize this, because the young Iranians—let’s call them Iran’s Millennials—who have marched the streets in protest over the past week are no different than their Western peers. Many are highly educated. The range of expertise in Iran is remarkably like any Western countr,y from sciences to liberal arts. They use the Internet, they adapt to new technology, and they are socially active. In some way, the obstacles they face from the religiously conservative government has allowed them to devise ingenious solutions, which has only enhanced their sophistication.
Anyone familiar with the”Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy London” movements knows that the West itself has little to boast when it comes to freedom of expression and public protest.
President Trump has not missed the opportunity to score some bipartisan political points, tweeting at large about the Iranian protests:
Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
There Are No Political Parties in Iran
Iran has no formal political parties, tThus political sentiment is channeled through political currents, which might be simplistically described as conservative, moderate, and progressive. Iranian President Hassan Rohani belongs to the progressives, but the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls who can run for the presidential election, is on the conservative side.
The current protests are rather complex, because they started out in Mashhad, a conservative and spiritual center. It is famous for its annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam. However, this has prompted a counter-protest of sorts from the progressives, who challenge the concentration of power—and much of the wealth—in the hands of the clerical ruling class, the Mullahs or Ayatollahs. Therefore, the situation is volatile and has the potential to spark a civil war of sorts. The question is, can it escalate that precarious point?
Progressives Vs. Hardliners in Islamic Republic of Iran
The Khamenei supporters and many other Iranians have celebrated the strong role they had in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But a new generation of Millennials faces much more mundane difficulties, and would rather their government address those issues.
President Rohani’s intervention in favor of Shiites and related allies (Syria, Lebanon, and possibly Yemen) was part of the price he had to pay to secure Khamenei’s approval of the “5+1” nuclear deal with the United States, the European Unuin (EU), and Russia. Rohani made the deal into the centerpiece of his economic strategy. It was supposed to bring in much-needed foreign investment while also expanding trade and allowing Iran to function as a normal power in the global system.
That, Rohani and many Iranians believed, would set a path of growth strong enough to absorb the vast and educated resources of Iranian Millennials. Unlike many western societies, Iran has a massive population of youth. Many of them are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they can’t afford housing; Tehran real estate prices are comparable to New York City. Therefore, they can’t get married or even attract partners, creating a whole series of emotional and physiological frustrations on top of the economic ones.
Rohani’s foreign affairs minister, the affable and brilliant Mohammad Javad Zarif, got a hero’s welcome in 2015 when he brought home the nuclear deal. That is perhaps the key to understanding the protests. That deal, and the fact that Rohani was re-elected in May 2017, points out that the protests are more economic than political.
Moreover, the Rohani government could use them to weaken the conservatives, who still favor ideological pursuits over economic growth. This doesn’t have to come down to violent conflict because the situation has already reached a point where political chess has become necessary.
Khamenei is rumored to be suffering from cancer, and a successor is expected soon. That successor will likely be someone more attentive to the Millennials’ needs. The protests started in Mashhad, which happens to be a stronghold of the infamous former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei banned from running in the last election, and Ebrahim Raisi, who is Rohani’s main political rival.
The government has already tried to appease the protesters, and it will likely offer some economic incentives to quell the demonstrations, trying to contain them from going further. The conservatives and their Basij and Pasdaran militias (as opposed to the regular army) will be more careful about responding with violence and inflaming the revolt. Ayatollah Khamenei knows something about it, since his associates and the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, even from exile, exploited the Shah’s violent response to protests in 1978-1979 to successful effect in bringing down the monarchy.
Iranians Are Weary of Foreign Meddling
As all Iranians know, it matters what the American administration thinks about their government. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British secret services performed its first major coup, toppling the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh government in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The former had nationalized the oil industry, hurting the profits of the various oil majors. The latter agreed to become an important Washington ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, right on its borders.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was partly blowback for the 1953 coup. And it doesn’t matter to which color on the political spectrum Iranians subscribe, they are all weary of western intervention. That means, the best thing that President Trump could do to encourage the protests is to stay quiet.
Iranians also know the hardships of revolutions, sanctions, and wars. They do not want their country to become another Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, or Egypt. Indeed, the very hint of foreign interference or intervention will compromise the protesters’ goals.
The revolt has not yet reached Tehran, the capital. If—and when—that happens, it will be a critical test for the government. That said, Iranian President Rohani has repeatedly stated that the demonstrators have legitimate claims and that they are free to protest. (Source: “Rohani Says Iranians ‘Absolutely Free’ To Protest, But Warns Against Violence,” RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty, December 31, 2017.)
The problem is that Iran’s government does not speak with a single voice.
Will the Iranian Government Be Overthrown?
Iran is not just playing its cards domestically. Some of its opposition has a history of violence and terrorism: the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) has provided one such internal challenge since the very first years of the Islamic Republic. In 2009, the security forces were the only ones with weapons.
Now, it seems protesters have killed some police officers. It’s unusual for civilians to have guns in Iran, and it suggests that some of the demonstrations have goals that go beyond the socioeconomic realm. (Source:”Iranian protester shoots dead police officer, government says,” The Telegraph, January 1, 2018.)
The question, therefore, is not whether the Iranian government can avoid the fate of its Arab neighbors, but what forces might be contributing to intensifying them. The MEK could be involved; they could serve as the proxy through which foreign elements might operate. In 2012, the MEK was removed from the U.S. government list of terrorist groups. During the Iraq-Iran war, MEK fought the Iranian government with Iraq’s blessing, and from Iraqi border areas.
The United States forces that took part in anti-ISIS operations remain in Iraq. They could be used to back MEK and incite elements of the Iranian population against the government.
Then there’s the Israeli issue. It’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hates the Iranian nuclear deal and would welcome the collapse of the Iranian leadership, having often urged Washington to take action, whether it was Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Trump in the White House. Netanyahu now faces a potential corruption charge that could force his resignation.
The Iranian card has now become a suitable security distraction also because the case could be made that, in the face of uncertainty, Iran might encourage Hezbollah to take action. That is unlikely, as Hezbollah has increasingly become involved in pure Lebanese national affairs. But it provides a great excuse. Meanwhile, much of the blame for the nuclear deal’s failure to launch economic reforms and improvements should go to Trump.
Trump has effectively prevented Iran from taking advantage of the partial lifting of sanctions that the nuclear deal promised. So long as Trump threatens to pull the U.S. out of the Iran deal, no bank or corporation wants to risk doing business with Iran. This has the effect of strengthening Iran’s conservatives and exacerbating the political and social tensions.
Perhaps, as it did elsewhere in the Middle East, Russia might intervene diplomatically and regionally to help Iran confront the unrest and remain stable. But the Trump administration knows where Tehran’s weak spot remains, and it could act accordingly.
Still, it would be foolish for Trump to scrap the Iran deal, as he has often said he would do. That would appeal to Iranian nationalism and unite Iranians against a common external threat, just as encouraging Saddam Hussein to launch a war against Iran in 1980 also backfired. It’s also worth noting that among the Gulf of Petro monarchies, Iran is the only de facto democracy.
Trump has tweeted about Iran in such as way to show he cares about Iranians. If that’s true, then he will stop disparaging the Iran nuclear deal.