5 January 2018
Sanam Vakil breaks down what sparked the unrest, how it affects President Hassan Rouhani’s position and what happens next.
Sanam Vakil

Dr Sanam Vakil

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

2018-01-05-Iranprotest.jpg

Protests over economic malaise and corruption have spread across Iranian towns and cities. Photo: Getty Images.
Protests over economic malaise and corruption have spread across Iranian towns and cities. Photo: Getty Images.

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Who are the protesters and what are their grievances?

For over a week, protesters in Iran have demonstrated and rioted in over 60 cities and towns around the country, rallying against economic malaise, corruption, mismanagement and Iran’s activities in the region.

The protesters can very generally be divided into two groups – workers and Iranian millennials. Both have deep-seated economic grievances against the Islamic Republic.

Workers have actually been protesting and striking for many years now, particularly over limited labour protection, working conditions, unpaid and poor wages, as well as growing income inequality and rising prices. 

The youth are deeply angry over their prospects within the Islamic Republic and many feel they have nothing to lose. Unemployment among youth is officially 25% and job creation has been a significant challenge for the government. President Hassan Rouhani’s economic programme and recent budget focused on generating youth employment through both foreign and domestic investment. However, a revival of international investment after the signing of the nuclear agreement has been slower than expected.

Demonstrators also personally attacked Iran’s political leadership, specifically calling for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They also expressed dissatisfaction that national resources were being used to support Iran’s regional foreign policy rather than on infrastructure and other bread-and-butter issues at home.

How are these protests different from the Green Movement protests after the contested 2009 presidential election?

These protests differ from the 2009 protests for a number of reasons. First, the initial protest was supposedly organized by hardliners in Iran’s second-largest city, Mashhad, as part of a plan to criticize Rouhani’s economic plans. From there, the protests spiralled spontaneously, without coherent organization and leadership, to as many as to 66 Iranian towns and cities across the country. This is the widest geographic scope of national economic frustration seen since the 1979 revolution.

Unlike in 2009, these protests have been concentrated in peripheral cities and have not been as large in Tehran. But the overall scale of these protests is not nearly as large as in 2009. The government has estimated that not more than 15,000 people were involved. While this statistic is likely an underestimation, in-country observers and journalists have put the figure at not more than 50,000. In contrast, millions were present in 2009.

Another factor that differentiates the current protests is that there is so far very limited middle-class, professional and urban participation, perhaps due to fear of personal risk and uncertainty about the outcome.

How have different factions within the regime responded? Will this strengthen or weaken President Hassan Rouhani?

The regime was definitely taken aback by the protests, their geographical scope and personal attacks on the leadership. President Rouhani’s first and only public response to date has been to legitimize the right to peaceful protest, while also cautioning demonstrators against violence. However, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who also discussed the events, did not address popular grievances. Instead, he used the opportunity to deflect blame, accusing the US and other regional actors of stoking internal dissent. 

As a first step, the government must maintain factional unity, but the underlying competition between Rouhani and hardliners looking to weaken him will undoubtedly resurface. It is likely that Rouhani and the parliament will try to make some budgetary revisions, such as increasing subsidies, to immediately address popular concerns.

For more substantial changes though, Rouhani should use these events as an opportunity to assert greater power against the unelected bodies of the state, demanding greater transparency and oversight. He should also make an effort to hold town hall meetings around the country and connect personally with frustrated constituencies. Without a personal touch, Rouhani will gradually lose more legitimacy. 

How will this affect Iran's foreign policy?

The protests have undoubtedly raised questions about Iranian stability and doubts about Iran’s viability as a regional hegemon. I don’t believe there will be any immediate change to Iran’s foreign policy though. Iran’s support for Syria and non-state actors throughout the Middle East will remain strong. From the government’s perspective, retreating from its positions would demonstrate weakness and invite further pressure from opponents like the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

Iranian authorities are now saying that the protests have been stopped. Have they?

Not quite yet, but they are slowing down. The government is implementing a crackdown. They have arrested at least 1,000 people. They have slowed down internet connections and blocked social media and are policing the streets and towns around Iran. They have also sent messages, warnings and threats to prevent further unrest.

Should demonstrations continue into next week, however, expect a heavier-handed government response.

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