Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017. (Credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A series of urban uprisings in Iran that began on Dec. 28 in its second-largest city shocked the country’s 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 — such as “Leave Syria alone, think about us” and “Death to Hezbollah” — 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 doesn’t eliminate the significance of the largest protests since 2009, when millions came out to oppose the outcome of that year’s 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.
What’s behind the uprising
Not surprisingly, the conservative faction of the Islamic regime was quick to blame Iran’s 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 haven’t 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 country’s oil and gas production.
The non-oil sector, however, expanded just 3.3 percent — a clear sign the economy’s recovery has been slow in visibly improving people’s 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 Iran’s 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 Iran’s 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 protesters’ anger.
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