Iranians have tired of government’s warped priorities
For the second time this year, thousands of Iranians have taken collective action to publicly express their discontent and anger at the government. In January, thousands of Iranians took to the streets in more than 60 towns and cities across the country to protest the economic policies of the government, which have led to economic stagnation, inflation and high unemployment.
Then, last Sunday, hundreds of merchants in Tehran’s famed Grand Bazaar closed their shops in anger at the same failed economic policies. While there are some differences between the two episodes — as well as with the wider protests that took place in 2009 that became known as the Green Revolution — all three are indicative of long-simmering, widespread discontent. At their core, they are a stand against the government’s decades-long disregard for the economic prosperity of the citizenry. Instead the rulers have chosen to focus on destabilizing their neighbors and the region by supporting militant non-state actors as well as other rogue regimes.
This refusal to abide by the norms of international relations and disregard for good governance and sound policies domestically are the main reasons Iran finds itself in its current unenviable position.
Iran’s economy is largely dependent on income from its oil and gas sectors. The government also spends billions annually on various subsidies. At the same time, its economic institutions and commercial regulations leave much to be desired. These economic challenges, however, are not unique to Iran. Many developing countries have had to implement policies to diversify their economy, privatize government-owned enterprises and various other measures. What is endemic to Iran is the government’s apparent lack of interest in addressing these issues, preferring instead to divert much of its oil and gas revenues to supporting non-state actors like various militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran’s continued commitment to exporting its revolution and destabilizing other countries by supporting militant groups that seek to impose their will on the rest of the society has garnered Iran the label “rogue regime.” It is considered as such because it refuses to abide by some of the most fundamental laws, conventions and norms of international relations. But, as the recent protests show, it is not only Iran’s neighboring countries — and the United States — that are demanding the regime stops its support for terrorist groups and operations. The Iranian people themselves have apparently also run out of patience with the government’s warped priorities.
The choice for the Iranian government is an easy one: Stop destabilizing the region and focus on improving the lives of the people of Iran.
The protests that erupted in Iran in 2009 involved millions of people demonstrating across the country and were largely a response to what was widely considered to be an unfair election. Rather than address its citizens’ concerns, the regime resorted to its usual modus operandi: A brutal suppression of the protests. This year, and although the protests have thus far been smaller than they were in 2009, they suggest that the anger has spread from the educated elites of Tehran to some of the regime’s base of support in cities like Mashhad.
These protesters have made it clear they have tired of the ineffectual economic policies that have resulted in economic stagnation and political isolation. The chants have ranged from “death to high prices” to “death to the dictator” — a clear reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Just as importantly, there have been chants imploring the regime to stop its support of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and to focus on resolving their very real grievances.
In May, the US administration decided to withdraw from the deal that the US and five other nations signed with Iran in 2015 that put limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. The White House had hinted that whether it would remain in the agreement would depend on a broad assessment of Iran’s policies. Its assessment was not strictly focused on the terms of the nuclear agreement, which has no regard to its missiles program or, more importantly, its “nefarious” activities in the region.
The US, like many other countries, continues to view Iran as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world. It is this dubious distinction that has made Iran the subject of economic sanctions once again. To show its seriousness, news reports last week suggested that the US is asking nations that import Iranian oil to drastically reduce the amount they buy or potentially face sanctions themselves.
Since President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, the Iranian currency, the rial, has continued to drop in value. Since late last year, it has lost almost 50 percent of its value. In yet another reminder of the Iranian government’s neglect of the infrastructure in the country, last week also witnessed significant electricity blackouts in the capital and beyond.
The protests in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar have garnered significant attention worldwide. In a statement on his official Twitter account, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “Iran’s corrupt regime is wasting the country’s resources on Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas & Houthis, while Iranians struggle. It should surprise no one (the) Iran protests continue.”
The choice for the Iranian government is an easy one: Stop destabilizing the region and focus on improving the lives of the people of Iran. Unless and until it does, its status globally and its legitimacy in the eyes of its people will go from bad to worse.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer