Regime Unity Will Decide the Fate of Iran’s Protests

Iran’s leadership is once again confronted by a wave of protests that have spread over the last week to both urban centers and rural areas. So far, no clearly identifiable leadership has emerged, making it hard for outside observers to decipher the goals of these protests or the extent to which they are likely to last. But while Iranian authorities continue to deal with the unrest––in the process causing the death of 21 people and arresting hundreds more––one thing is clear: the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot claim to be in full control domestically or to rest on their laurels for their external successes over the last few years. In fact, if anything, the ongoing protests are a sign that Iran’s regionally triumphant leaders have failed to effectively address serious internal political and economic grievances that have afflicted their country for decades.

As the Washington Post has reported, the protests are an open defiance of the Islamic leadership of the country, which appears to have been surprised by the unrest. And while the clerical leadership is still united in defending the status quo, its constituency of Iranians may not be satisfied with the pace of change required: neither the reformers are happy with how much change has taken place nor the underclass is content with what has been done to address its impoverished economic situation. Whatever the official response and however harsh it may be, the current protests should be a loud wake-up call to both reformers and conservatives in the clerical regime. The message is that the Islamic Revolution is simply not faring well as the regime approaches the celebration of its 39th year of leading the nation.

The Trials of Political Reform

President Hassan Rouhani’s first election in 2013 was seen as the Iranian people’s response to the hardline rule of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ultraconservative cohorts as well as a sign of Iranians’ hope for a more open sociopolitical system. Rouhani is not considered a reformist in the mold of former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), but rather as an acceptable alternative to the liberal as well as the conservative poles of the system. His first election was reaffirmed in his reelection in spring 2017, despite much opposition and the machinations by different factions of the same ultraconservative trend.

Although he set out after both elections to effect the needed moderate tinkering and direct Iran’s policies in a centrist orientation, Rouhani was stymied at every turn: by parliament, the judiciary, and loyalists of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In Iran’s bifurcated political system where the constitutionally elected presidency, government, and parliament operate alongside an un-elected authority, in Khamenei’s person, Rouhani has always worried about securing the latter’s approval, thus compromising much of his purported reformist agenda. In the process, and as the current unrest shows, he stands accused of arriving at one of two fates, or both simultaneously: as an appendage to Khamenei, and/or an ineffectual caretaker in an ossified system controlled by the clerical establishment.

The protests over the last few days have highlighted a degree of opposition to both the Khamenei crowd and those who believe in Rouhani’s mission of making the Islamic system palatable. Perhaps for the first time, protest slogans included obvious attacks on the sanctity of Khamenei’s person and criticism and rejection of Iran’s active regional role. Videos circulated of protesters tearing down Khamenei posters, an unprecedented act in a republic built on the veneration of the Supreme Leader. Protesters also shouted, “death to the dictator”––a refrain widely understood to mean Khamenei––apparently no longer worried about being painted as anti-clerical. While probably preferring to remain above the fray, the Supreme Leader has accused outsider provocateurs of stirring unrest in the country. As for Rouhani, he has played his moderating card, announcing that, “People are free to express their criticism and to protest,” but only without violence and destruction of property. Protesters also voiced their opposition to Iran’s role in regional affairs such as in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, preferring that the leadership concentrate on domestic issues. There were even those who chanted for the restoration of the monarchy, a truly blasphemous act.

So far, however, the regime—in both its moderate/reformist and conservative hues—remains unified, an important observation when evaluating the chances for regime survival or the wherewithal of the protests. Indeed, so long as Khamenei and Rouhani maintain their control over their respective shares of the Iranian state, and so long as the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) remains loyal to the person of the Supreme Leader, it is unlikely that the protests will succeed in changing the nature of the regime. Concomitantly, the absence of a clear opposition leadership makes the protests appear merely as spontaneous expressions of widespread disapproval, albeit sustained for almost a week. Nevertheless, the fact that people dared to go out in the streets all over the country should be a very worrisome sign that the clerics and their secular supporters, in the Supreme Leader’s office and in the government, would do well to heed.

Economic Vicissitudes

Economic conditions of ordinary Iranians are at the center of the current demonstrations, although these have lately taken on a political nature related to the regime, its symbols and personnel, and its regional reach. As Amir Ahmadi Arian credibly opines, the current protests have been brought about not only by dire economic conditions suffered by the underclass, but also by the fact that the clerical state appears to condone the flashiness of new economic actors and benefactors, in the process souring the poor against the regime. According to Arian, demonstrations by the poor, who had participated in prior protests since the 1990s, “were either stifled halfway through by the government or drowned out by civil rights activists.” This time around, the poor broke through and made themselves heard without the support of status quo forces, including President Rouhani. In essence, Arian surmises, these protests may have finally pronounced the end of the government’s ability to count on its conservative rural constituency.

Iran’s weak economy was to have been at least partly addressed after the lifting of international sanctions on the Islamic Republic in July 2015, following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231. While the government may claim that the intervening period may not have provided enough time to truly effect major changes in economic conditions, those in Iran who have counted on lifting sanctions to better their situation think otherwise. After all, nuclear talks with the international community that began in earnest in 2013––almost immediately following Rouhani’s election––were sold domestically to moderates and conservatives alike as the path toward economic plenty and Iran’s rehabilitation in the world.

As things stand today, high inflation (9 percent in 2016) and unemployment rates (12.4 percent in the current fiscal year, up 1.4 percent from the previous year) and inequality in distribution of national wealth have sapped the underclass. Corruption in government institutions has eroded both the required faith in the Islamic regime and efficacy in governance. Those demonstrating had no qualms about accusing the clerics of benefiting personally from government largesse and their proximity to the regime and associated charities and institutions. Many are also likely aware of the economic clout the IRGC has in Iran, where it controls an estimated 25 percent of the economy and is involved in construction projects, telecommunications, and finance. Furthermore, perhaps the publishing of a recent three-part accounting by Reuters of the Supreme Leader’s financial portfolio will give the protesters even more fodder for their resentment and criticism—though the current atmosphere and government censorship on media outlets and reporters may prevent the report’s dissemination.

On the other hand, it is hard to see how ameliorating difficult economic conditions in Iran can help end the protests if it is not combined with a serious re-engineering of the political realm. Economic disparity in Iran or elsewhere is usually a product of a skewed political environment in which certain elites and their supporters benefit from a less-than-level economic landscape. In the Iranian case, these elites are, briefly, a combination of politicians in the Islamic Revolution’s clerical class––the religious and ideological group providing legitimacy to the Islamic political order––who have benefited from the revolution since 1979, merchants, and military leaders involved in economic activities. Economic change thus becomes wedded to political change. As Suzanne Maloney has recently posited, there are no short-term fixes for Iran’s problems; and economic change cannot take place without concomitant political change that is fundamental and purposeful.

But There Are Other Factors

While political and economic conditions may have formed the material underpinnings of the current protests, it is not far-fetched to look into some ideational and societal factors as important incentives for both rural and urban Iranians to hit the streets. One important consideration is related to the deteriorating human rights conditions and limited democratic practices in the country outside the confines of permissible official ideology. Cleric-dominated political institutions controlled by the all-powerful Supreme Leader, such as the Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council, vet the laws and the personnel of the Islamic Republic to make sure they abide by Islamic theology and teachings.

While the internet is widely available, the government has control over its content and prohibits such popular social media as Twitter and Facebook. Nevertheless, Iranians remain exposed to the outside world’s developments, which they cannot dream of experiencing given the restrictions on their lives. Telegram, a popular communications application that has 40 to 46 million users, was disabled by the government during this last bout of protests. While the Rouhani government tries to open the space for a freer press, it finds itself in a battle with conservatives advocating restrictions. The same goes for dress codes for women. It was ironic that the government eased the application of the law requiring women to cover their heads in public just as the demonstrations were beginning. A woman demonstrator indeed took off her head covering in Tehran, a clear sign that not all Iranian women are necessarily wedded to their hijab.

Furthermore, it is possible that the clerical establishment in control of the country––obviously made up of old men––may not necessarily reflect the modernity that Iran’s youth would prefer for their country. According to the CIA Factbook, about 39 percent of Iran’s population is under 24 years of age; a full 87 percent is below 54 years; and the median age is a little over 30 years. The urban population constitutes about 74 percent of the total. Literacy is almost 87 percent. In other words, Iran’s is a young and educated society living under political and social conditions that not only limit its drive for material advancement but restrict its hope for a more modern polity, one similar to what Iranians see around the world. While it may be true that the current protests began among a conservative constituency in a religious city, Mashhad, it also can be true that this constituency and others joining it in demonstrating against socioeconomic and sociopolitical conditions want a modern polity not in thrall of the religious establishment.

What Is to Be Expected?

Over the last 20 years, Iran has experienced three major political and social moves of protest and potential change. The first came as a struggle between modernizing elites, students, and the general public and a conservative establishment opposed to the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, in the late 1990s. The second came in 2009 and was instigated by a widespread belief that Supreme Leader Khamenei had forced the reelection of the erratic former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the Iranian people. Both of those occasions ended in a defeat for opponents of the ruling establishment, although not of the established clerical order.

The current protests still look too ambiguous for judging their nature and goal. What is clear, however, is that they have not profiled any specific set of leaders, rural or urban, conservative or reformist. But the slogans and demands that were used and made by the protesters indicate that there is much angst and frustration with the slow pace of political reform, the glacial movement of economic change, and the stifling control of the clerical class. And while it is too early to pronounce a verdict on the viability, or success, of the protest movement, one is tempted to say that the regime’s solidarity and unity may be the deciding factor in the coming days. Perhaps the new pro-government counter-demonstrations are an indication of the official organized response that the regime and its supporters will employ to popularly end the protests without the use of excessive force.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here