Social media is our main source of news and spin abounds. But there are some conclusions we can draw from the apparently widespread protests in Iranby Ali Ansari / January 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
The protests that have spread through Iran like a series of bush fires have taken most observers, not least the Iranian authorities, by surprise.
What ostensibly began as a protest against economic hardship in the north-eastern city of Mashhad—with, it was suggested, some encouragement and support by hard-line critics of President Rouhani—has prompted a series of copycat demonstrations, some of which have turned violent, throughout the country, including in villages and towns that even some residents of Tehran have never heard of.
It has resulted in a degree of bewilderment as well as the traditional slide into conspiracy theories about the role of the “hidden hand”—whether foreign or indeed, in this case, domestic.
A word of caution
First, a note of caution. Quite apart from the astonishing geographic spread of the protests, we have little information of their depth and the extent of the anger being expressed.
What information we do have is largely garnered through social media. Seeing a protest through the lens of smart phone gives little indication of its size and anecdotal evidence does suggest that the protests are localised.
The absence of journalists beyond the confines of Tehran—to say nothing of foreign journalists, who are largely banned from Iran—means that the information is difficult to verify. In some cases, videos have been posted on social media from the uprising in 2009.
Anger and malaise
There is little evidence of an organised movement, still less a revolutionary head of steam. But neither should we trivialise developments, regard them as purely economic and/or an expression of some sort of Iranian “civil rights” movement.
There is clearly something more visceral and angry going on, with many people having reached the end of their tether as far as the government, and the regime’s promises, are concerned.
That at least 22 people have died, including a number of law enforcement officials, within a week of the protests starting is surely the clearest indication that this is not some little local difficulty. Indeed, whatever the immediate consequences, the protests are indicative of a wider and profound malaise in the body politic of the Islamic Republic.
This is not a narrative that sits easily with many who have viewed the Rouhani administration through unusually rose-tinted spectacles made all the more effervescent by his success in concluding the nuclear agreement in 2015.
All this has led many foreign observers to construct unrealistic expectations around Rouhani—almost as unrealistic as the promises he made to the Iranian people—and which has unsurprisingly led to some discomfort now.
The need for reform
Although the timing and nature of such protests remains unpredictable, that there is simmering discontent that might at any time explode should not come as a surprise to any objective observer of political (and historical) developments.
Iranians have tended to combine stoicism and rebelliousness in equal measure, with successive governments being lulled into a false sense of security by the former, only to be rudely awoken by periodic bouts of the latter.
The inherent instability of the system is a political liability that needs to be directly addressed. Economic reform on its own is insufficient. It did not work for the Shah and it won’t work for the Islamic Republic.
Presidents Rafsanjani, and more obviously Khatami, understood this dynamic, but found the regime impervious to reform. Ahmadinejad bought the silence of the masses through the reckless disbursement of oil money—no longer an option. Rouhani sought a return to the tired dogma of economic-led reform, this time via a “peace dividend” that would emerge from the nuclear agreement.
His grandiloquent statements on the economic bonanza that would emerge were always far-fetched and bore little relation to the text of the agreement itself under which many economic sanctions would remain in place.
All he was effectively doing was raising popular expectations well beyond his capacity to deliver with the real danger that euphoria would be followed by despair.
Little hope for Western involvement
Given the realities of the Iranian political economy, there was very little prospect of Western investment queuing to get into the country, and even if it did, very little immediate prospect that this investment would have an impact on ordinary people’s lives.
The chief beneficiaries would always be the regime insiders because that is the way the political economy of Iran has and continues to be structured.
Rouhani gives a good speech but in his time in office he has done little or nothing to address this structural deficit. It is true that he won a landslide election last year, but he won that election against a contender who was widely regarded as a mass murderer. This was not a normal election. The people’s vote was less an endorsement of Rouhani and more driven by fear that things might indeed get worse.
This fear continues to haunt Reformists, who are largely emasculated by the repression which followed 2009 and now clinging to Rouhani as their last great hope. It is for this reason many of them have viewed the protests with trepidation.
There is of course a degree of intellectual snobbery among the reformist intelligentsia that informs their views about a protest over which they have no control. But they are also anxious that the protests—which in their eyes were initiated by the hardliners (which, if true, reflects an extraordinary hubris)—will fatally weaken Rouhani, and at worst prepare the ground for some sort of Revolutionary Guard intervention.
Rouhani for his part has sought—as usual—to have his cake and eat it, by condemning the “rioters,” while recognising the “protestors” may have a point. Meanwhile internet speeds have been reduced and no permits have been granted for the protests the government appears to agree are legitimate.
At the same time, the balance is tilting towards renewed suppression as the authorities point the finger at the usual foreign suspects. None of this augurs well for the Islamic Republic or indeed the Revolution that underpins it. It reflects an ideological bankruptcy at the heart of a system that has lost its way and which has now found popular expression in nostalgia for the monarchy it overthrew.
Few developments are more indicative of a Revolution that has long run out of steam.