Iran’s protests a sign of inevitable change
A government decision to ration petrol and hike its price has triggered mass protests across Iran, in what appear to be spontaneous eruptions against dire economic conditions. By Monday, the protests and riots had reached the capital Tehran amid reports of mass arrests and killings of protesters by the Basij — a paramilitary arm of the ruling clergy answering directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The controversial decision to hike the price of petrol was confirmed by Khamenei on Sunday, who described the protesters as “thugs” and called on the government to use force to subdue them. Internet service was cut off in most cities as protests were reported in Ahvaz, Mashhad, Shiraz, Borujen, Bandar Mahshahr, Gachsaran, Zahedan, Sirjan, Behbahan, and Khorramshahr, with protesters burning Khamenei’s image and chanting “death to the dictator.”
Iran’s economy has been struggling since the US withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018 and imposed tough sanctions that constrained the country’s ability to export its oil. But what makes this latest uprising exceptional — there were similar protests in December 2017 and August 2018 — is the fact that they coincide with major popular revolts in neighboring Iraq and in Lebanon; two countries where Iran holds considerable political sway.
The revolt in Iraq, with demonstrators calling for Iran’s expulsion, especially in the Shiite-majority south, has had a direct impact on Iran’s stressed economy. Iraqi protesters had interrupted work at the country’s major sea ports, including Umm Qasr and Abu Flous, which Tehran has been using to smuggle its oil.
The Iranian economy has been deteriorating, with the rial losing almost 60 percent of its value in the past 15 months, affecting ordinary Iranians and, more significantly, the influential bazaar merchants in Tehran and Isfahan. The official unemployment rate stands at 12 percent, with youth unemployment reaching 26 percent. Overall inflation stands at 47 percent, with rates as high as 63 percent for food and fuel, making it difficult to buy essential goods, even for the middle class. The IMF last month predicted that Iran’s economy would contract by 9.5 percent this year.
With a population of 80 million, of which 40 percent is under 25, it is no wonder that protests are erupting every few months as living conditions deteriorate. There is no doubt that US sanctions have contributed to worsening economic conditions, but it is important to note that mass corruption has been fueling popular discontent for years. Successive presidents have failed to eradicate institutional corruption, which has spread all the way to the judiciary, the banking sector, lawmakers, government officials, and the influential religious and paramilitary institutions.
The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a state within a state and is believed to be in control of 20 to 40 percent of Iran’s economy, employing more than 200,000 people in 220 companies that it runs directly or indirectly. It has its own navy, militias and missile system and answers only to Khamenei, not the president or the government. Its budget is separate from that of the state and its activities extend beyond Iran into Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
The IRGC’s squandering of billions of dollars outside Iran has fueled discontent among ordinary Iranians. Protesters have directed their anger against Iran’s sponsorship of proxies outside their country. It is ironic that, while Iranians continue to suffer, the religious class under Khamenei is more concerned with keeping its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at all costs. It was Iran’s regional agenda and meddling in the affairs of others that alienated it from its neighbors in the first place.
While Iranians continue to suffer, the religious class under Khamenei is more concerned with keeping its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The regime’s response to the protests will be violent and bloody and, despite growing disgruntlement among the middle class, the ruling religious group is unlikely to change its behavior or make concessions at this stage. President Hassan Rouhani, who said last week that Iran is experiencing its most difficult times since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, can do little to resist pressure from the supreme leader and his IRGC loyalists.
But it is almost certain that Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq will recede in the wake of the uprisings that are raging in those two countries. The reality is that Iraqi and Lebanese citizens are fed up with Iran’s meddling and, as they shun sectarianism and the corruption of the ruling class, they will also derail Tehran’s efforts to sabotage their revolt.
Whether the current protests in Iran will rage on or be crushed remains to be seen. But what we do know for certain is that the challenge facing the regime will not go away anytime soon, and public anger will continue to build as the economy contracts further and hardship affects the majority of the population. The country’s religious clique will have to realize that maintaining the status quo is untenable and that change will take place eventually.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010