Whereas previous protest movements erupted out of relatively privileged circles in Tehran, these latest demonstrations saw a grassroots uprising from poverty-stricken citizens in the regime’s traditional heartlands. You can’t get more socially conservative than Mashhad, the epicenter of these events and the birthplace of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In 2009, an estimated three million demonstrators in Tehran failed to dislodge the Ayatollahs. However, two years later, events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere proved what was possible when protesters were sufficiently numerous and tenacious. Desperate and disenfranchised dissidents with nothing to lose may prove less willing to admit defeat than the students and middle-classes of Tehran, who often backed down when threatened with redundancy or loss of university places.
Centralized protests in Tehran in 2009 were eventually contained and neutralized. The contagion of the 2018 unrest to dozens of towns in provinces across Iran creates an entirely new security challenge: Discontent crushed in 10 locations can burst out in 50 other towns. The repeated motif of boots thrown at portraits of Khamenei or images of Qasem Soleimani trampled underfoot illustrates how protesters were violating taboos to vent their fury against the heart of the beast.
As acknowledged even by Tehran’s state media, at the forefront of protesters’ minds are economic frustrations: Sky-high unemployment (with 40 percent of young people reportedly out of work); a disintegrating economy; dire public sector wages; and a hollowed out social welfare system.
However, the average unemployed laborer and market stall holder comprehends that these grievances are the product of a perverse governing system, which squanders the nation’s oil wealth on overseas paramilitary adventures, rendering Iran the very definition of a pariah state paralyzed by international sanctions. While average household incomes are insufficient to afford basic goods like eggs and meat, wealth accumulates in the hands of the richest 5 percent within the corrupt echelons of the regime. Massive state contracts are awarded to regime cronies and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which concentrates wealth and patronage networks even further.
A significant trigger for the unrest was a leaked draft budget, which revealed brutal cuts to subsidies and welfare payments, combined with lavish financial windfalls for bastions of the regime. There have been massive increases in budgetary spending to opaque and corrupt religious and conservative institutions, and a reported 20 percent rise in military spending to an estimated $14 billion (total budget $104 billion). It is calculated that more than half of this goes directly to the IRGC, which receives three times as much the regular army.
This draft budget fails to account for the IRGC’s copious additional income from its annexation of vast swathes of the domestic economy, while profiteering from its international networks, such as the drugs trade through Afghanistan, monopoly of lucrative cross-border trade and pilgrimage routes into Iraq, and transcontinental weapons proliferation networks.
Estimates furthermore calculate that Iran spends anything between $6 billion and $35 billion on military and non-military assistance to the Assad regime, as well as around $800 million on funding for Hezbollah and around $2 billion to Iraqi militants and the Houthis in Yemen. Furthermore, hundreds of millions go to militants in Palestine, Afghanistan and Bahrain. Several thousand Iranians and Iranian residents of South Asian origin have lost their lives in these foreign conflicts. No wonder protesters chanted: “No Gaza, No Lebanon, No Syria, My life for Iran!”
Every fatality, every arbitrary detainee, every torture victim should be given maximum attention to make it politically unaffordable for the regime to kill its way out of this crisis.
Thus Iran’s economic woes cannot be considered in isolation from a governing model that aspires to strategic depth through funding a plethora of paramilitary proxies, which have become the primary agents of regional instability. Tehran could have benefited from the nuclear deal to embrace greater international legitimacy and acceptance, having naively been offered the benefit of the doubt by the Obama administration. Instead, the regime exploited the financial dividend from unfrozen funds and sanctions relief to massively increase its spending on overseas insurgency and terrorism.
While veteran Iran-watchers fear that the Ayatollahs possess the necessary military muscle to stifle these rallies, some wonder whether history could repeat itself: During the 1970s, the Shah spent massively on a vast military machine to make him unchallengeable, yet harsh repression made millions of Iranians even more defiant and eventually precipitated the Shah’s downfall. However, the 1979 revolution was hijacked by a clerical elite that bloodily repressed all other segments of the nationalist protest movement. In 2018, the world cannot allow such a catastrophic mistake to repeat itself. Events in Libya and Syria demonstrate that a smooth democratic transition is difficult to achieve, perhaps instead resulting in prolonged internal chaos or an IRGC coup should the Ayatollahs be swept from power.
These insights illustrate the need for a massive international effort in support of a new Iran. Such a role wouldn’t be cheap or easy, but the payoff for improved regional stability and neutralizing threats from terrorism and nuclear proliferation would be immense
Meanwhile, the spotlight of global attention must be focused on these events. Every fatality, every arbitrary detainee, every torture victim should be given maximum attention to make it politically unaffordable for the regime to kill its way out of this crisis. We’ve already seen tens of deaths and at least a thousand citizens arrested in arbitrary round-ups by the security forces — this is the regime just getting started.
Although Russia’s championing of Tehran has once again resulted in a farcically divided UN Security Council, the international community must speak with one voice, pledging that every Iranian official involved in such a crackdown should face sanctions. The regime itself should face renewed isolation and a crippling sanctions regime, along with the prospect of military action in the event of Iran reopening its nuclear program or lashing out overseas.
If brave acts of defiance by determined Iranians are allowed to fail, this would only be putting off the inevitable, condemning millions to years of further misery and repression. We shouldn’t be bashful about saying it: The world will be a far better place without the Islamic Republic of Iran, and change is coming, whether today or tomorrow. We are right to seize the opportunity to encourage change and actively support the aspirations of millions of Iranians for freedom from tyranny.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.