Protests Might Be the Harbinger of a Greater Crisis for Iran
Across the Middle East, protests are shaking the pillars of power. In Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, people have taken to the streets to express frustration with corruption, mismanagement, and austerity. While the protest movements in each country are rooted in domestic concerns particular to that country, Iran, as one of the main outside backers of powerful elites in both Lebanon and Iraq, is at the foundation of each crisis. The protests are a challenge to Iran’s legitimacy both regionally and at home and therefore constitute a severe political crisis that could have lasting strategic ramifications. Tehran’s crisis of legitimacy will endure regardless of whether the present uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran itself are suppressed in the near term. While the Iranian leadership may not recognize it, the protests reflect a broader rejection of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance among parts of the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian populations. And Iran’s playbook for responding to public concerns — repression, not concession — will only exacerbate the erosion of its standing over the longer term.
Iran has experienced its most significant turmoil in a decade. A decision by the regime to reduce subsidies on gasoline sparked mass demonstration across the country earlier this month. From Mashhad to Ahvaz, Iranians have taken to the streets to express their anger at the policy change, which increased the price of a liter of gas by at least 50 percent. For a segment of the Iranian public, who are already suffering under economic stress due to stifling U.S.-imposed sanctions and decades of economic mismanagement by Iran’s successive governments, the unexpected gas price hike was too much to take.
Iran has witnessed episodic, if not generational, waves of protests. The student protests of 1999 and the green wave protests in 2009 were similar in that both were fueled by reformist political hopes and triggered by regime injustice. With the University of Tehran as their epicenter, the 1999 protests were a collective explosion of frustration by students who had seen the unelected power centers of the regime routinely block the reformist promises of President Mohammad Khatami. Similarly, 10 years later, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets when the hardliner incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in an election marked by widespread irregularities and fraud. Although the protests began in condemnation of what was perceived to be a rigged election, the rhetoric of the demonstrators became more radicalized as the protesters were met with the violent suppression of police forces and Basij paramilitary units. The slogan “death to the dictator,” a reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, became one of the hallmarks of the 2009 protest movement. In other words, what had begun as a pro-reformist movement gradually took on anti-regime overtones. By comparison, the protests in December 2017 and January 2018 showcased anti-regime sloganeering very early on. These demonstrations began as hardline-instigated demonstrations against the Hassan Rouhani government but quickly evolved into protests against the Islamic Republic itself.
This year’s protests have moved the needle even further in the anti-regime direction. The crowds have adopted chants that include a mix of taunts against the supreme leader and even pro-monarchist sentiments. Their slogans are punctuated by the intermittent destruction of symbols of regime authority, including banks and government offices. Protesters have also attacked statues of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, and offices affiliated with his successor, Khamenei. In response, the Iranian government blocked access to the internet across most of the country. Without internet access, Iranians lost their main tools of organization (via apps like WhatsApp and Instagram) and of communication with the outside world. As access has gradually been restored to parts of the country, images, stories, and videos of the violence used against Iranian civilians have started to emerge. Numerous images and short videos of Basiji paramilitary forces firing into crowds from sniper positions, rushing into crowds while swinging truncheons from the backs of motorcycles, and beating protesters indiscriminately have been posted to social media. Iranians are sharing stories of friends and family missing or confirmed dead. Early estimates already suggest over 200 Iranians killed over the past week.
Where these protesters are taking to the streets is perhaps even more important than what they’re saying. The regime dismissed the 1999 and 2009 protests as driven by the liberal tendencies of an urban middle class. This time is different. The most severe and strident anti-regime activism, at least in terms of destruction to government buildings, appears to be occurring in more blue-collar and traditionally more conservative provincial cities and towns. The working-class city of Behbahan, in the traditionally religiously conservative southern province of Khuzestan, witnessed some of the evocative anti-regime activism.
The protests certainly signal that economic strain is beginning to take a toll on Iran’s social fabric, but they are not likely the death throes of a collapsing regime. The decision to change the fuel policy was abrupt, but it was not impulsive. The government is grappling with how to respond to an unrelenting campaign of U.S. economic sanctions. American pressure has sent the economy into recession, inflation has skyrocketed, and the currency has lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar. Sales of Iran’s most important export, crude oil, have plummeted by 80 percent.
On this harsh terrain, President Hassan Rouhani is trying to design a budget for next year that reduces expenditures and raises exports of other products that are difficult for the United States to sanction. That’s where gasoline comes into play. Reform of gasoline subsidies has long been on the government agenda, and it makes sense from an economic perspective. Gas prices in Iran are among the cheapest in the world, about $0.08 per liter before the reforms. Artificially cheap gasoline fuels overconsumption, corruption, and smuggling — mainly to Iran’s neighbors, where the gasoline is much more expensive. It also limits government revenue and reduces the amount that the state petrochemical company can export. Even though gasoline is subject to U.S. sanctions, it is much more difficult to restrict than crude oil. Oil is sold in large quantities to faraway consumers using a complex system of shipping and insurance companies, ports, refineries, and banks — providing U.S. authorities ample opportunities to stop transactions. Gasoline can be transported in small quantities using trucks or small ships directly to consumers in neighboring countries. This makes it a potentially lucrative way to skirt pressure from Washington.
Ironically, a policy change that will strengthen Iran’s resiliency in the face of American sanctions will further erode the regime’s legitimacy internally. The government took some steps to soften the blow and discourage protests by exempting diesel from the price increase and by including the provision of new cash handouts to 60 million people. Yet coercion remains at the core of the state’s response. The Islamic Republic has deployed a familiar cocktail of repression: a massive police presence, internet shutdown, and the vilification of protesters as agents of foreign powers. The regime’s elites, from Khamenei on down, are united in emphasizing the importance of these reforms. The Iranian state has a monopoly of force and the institutional capacity required to make tough choices about economic reforms. There is little reason to doubt that Iran will implement this policy and violently put down those who oppose it.
But Iran’s protests are not happening in a vacuum. There is also an important regional angle here. The protests in Iran are echoing the ongoing protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran is deeply invested in both countries. Iranian clients are part and parcel of the ruling establishments — Hizballah in Lebanon, and Shia militias in Iraq — and at the center of the corrupt machinery that the Lebanese and Iraqi protesters aim to overturn. Iran has heavily backed the status quo in both countries and has been reportedly tightly involved in the Iraqi government’s crackdown on protesters. Large segments of both publics see Iran as a key obstacle against progress and change, and as a guardian of corruption and nepotism.
In Iraq, especially, Iran has become one of the key targets of the protest movement. Any memory of Iran’s assistance in defeating the Islamic State among the Iraqi Shia has been overcome by notions of Iran as an occupying power. Instead of earning the goodwill of the Iraqi people, Iran’s massive political influence project in Iraq has made it an arch villain. A recent opinion poll found that Iraqis view Iran even less favorably than they view the United States. Iran is losing the sympathy of its co-religionists in Iraq and may be losing them in Lebanon as well.
Iran’s entire project looks to be on shaky ground. Tehran has spent almost four decades building Hizballah into the strongest political and military force in Lebanon, and it has spent the past 15 years doing the same with its Shia militia clients in Iraq. In many respects, that clientage network has made Iran the most formidable power in the region.
But that power is not eternal. Iran has invested in militants. Militants can fight wars and take territory, but they are generally poor at governance. So long as conflict persists, governance takes a back seat to security. But once security has been established, and citizens have the luxury to think about more than mere survival, suddenly things like access to electricity, employment, education, and health care begin to matter more. While Iran’s power resides in its militant clients, the legitimacy of those clients stems from the communities they represent. What we are seeing in Lebanon and Iraq is that a significant portion of those communities, particularly the young and underemployed, no longer see their ruling establishments as representing the interests of the people. If the protests in Iran are any indication, a segment of Iranians has come to similar conclusions about its own leaders. In all cases, Iran’s regime is viewed as a significant part of the problem.
The protests in Iran, as well as those in Lebanon and Iraq, compound the pressure on the ruling regime. Although it is perhaps unlikely that these protest movements will lead to meaningful change, they evince the shaky ground undergirding the Islamic Republic’s project both at home and in the region. Iran’s leaders are thus facing a crossroads: They can change course, or they can pursue more of the same, ignore the demands of the people, and hope that coercion, aggression, and an unflinching dedication to their ambitions will be sufficient to transcend this moment unscathed. Iran is more likely to adopt the latter approach. But as the region’s recent history has shown, repressing the popular desire for good governance and justice does not end that desire and could beget even further instability.
Afshon Ostovar is an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Henry Rome is an Iran analyst at Eurasia Group.
Image: Ayatollah Khamenei