Iranians’ protests pile the pressure on Raisi
As Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi prepares to assume his responsibilities on Thursday, protests in Ahwaz over the ongoing water crisis and other problems have expanded across the country. Protests have spread to Tehran, Karaj, Tabriz, Esfahan, Bushehr, Lorestan and Kermanshah, among other governorates, reflecting the growing public frustration and deep social tensions in Iran. These simmering tensions will have repercussions domestically and overseas in the upcoming period.
Some have analyzed the protests from a regional or factional standpoint, given that they have broken out in response to water shortages. The reality, however, indicates that the protests are caused by deep-rooted political, economic and cultural problems. These demonstrations, particularly those in Ahwaz, are the result of the entrenched structural problems — primarily discrimination, inequality, injustice and systematic economic and political marginalization — faced by the indigenous Arab people of the region, who are deprived of their resources. The regime has transferred their resources to regions whose populations are more ethnically Persian and, therefore, are more generally pro-regime, such as Kerman, Yazd and Esfahan.
This is in addition to the regime’s overall negligence toward the region’s infrastructure, as well as its systemic mismanagement and corruption; both of which are exposed by the ongoing water and electricity crises. Ahwaz is Iran’s richest region in terms of natural resources, primarily oil, gas and water. However, the Ahwazi people are among the poorest in Iran and globally.
The protests have swept across Ahwaz and the whole of Iran since July 15, despite the regime’s brutal efforts to crush them. They highlight the massive popular outrage across the country over the economic crisis, unemployment, inflation and deteriorating living conditions, not to mention the outrage over the domestic political deadlock, intensified repression and media censorship.
Iranian politicians, activists and artists launched a solidarity campaign in the face of the regime using excessive violence on the Ahwazi protesters. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned of imminent social collapse.
The protests in Ahwaz cannot be dealt with separately from those that broke out following the presidential election. They began with oil strikes on June 20, which overwhelmed more than 80 oil installations across the country. Workers across other sectors, such as electricity, also protested to demand an increase in the minimum wage, call for improved working conditions and to speed up the payment of long-overdue unpaid salaries.
All these points make it very clear that the latest presidential election failed to convince the Iranian voters of any prospective improvement in their living conditions and that, at the popular level, the regime’s elections are not reflective of the nation’s will. This means the election has not in any way helped to ease the sky-high political and societal tensions in the country, which are pushing the people to protest.
The latest presidential election failed to convince the Iranian voters of any prospective improvement in their living conditions.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
It is no secret that the presidential election was a cosmetic exercise used by the regime to consolidate the grip on power of the conservative religious elite. The stage is now set for the ultraconservative cleric Raisi to further tighten the hard-liners’ control over the branches of power. Raisi’s victory is expected to speed up a probable political transition in Iran, restoring the momentum of the 1979 theocratic revolution and supplying the regime with new administrators and figures that are unquestionably loyal to the principles of Velayat-e Faqih, as well as possibly preparing Raisi to succeed Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.
However, the wave of protests poses a challenge to this expected transition, especially since Raisi has no magic wand to reverse the dire realities facing the Iranian people. This means that the domestic situation could spiral out of control. Therefore, Raisi is likely to attempt to contain the domestic anger by providing financial relief. This is unlikely to be enough, since the protests are not only related to external pressures or the US sanctions following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, as the regime alleges.
The reality suggests that systemic mismanagement and corruption are two of the central factors in all the problems plaguing Iran. The nationwide protests that broke out in 2017 transpired at a time when the nuclear deal had ended Iran’s isolation and the regime was selling nearly 2.7 million barrels of oil per day, while previously frozen overseas assets worth billions of dollars were flowing into the regime’s treasury. Despite this, however, the regime did not channel these financial resources into improving socioeconomic conditions and addressing the economy’s structural problems. Instead, it used them to concentrate greater power and wealth in the hands of the ruling political elite and to finance its expansionist project to increase Iran’s regional power and interfere in the affairs of neighboring counties. Raisi is unlikely to deviate from this path, since he not only represents the hard-line movement ruling Iran for the past four decades but is also a guardian of its legacy.
Raisi will not have a smooth path toward the lifting of sanctions and the revival of the nuclear deal, so he will need to display some degree of flexibility at the Vienna talks. The Biden administration is well positioned to capitalize on the internal pressures facing the Iranian regime and force it to accept an amended agreement that reflects the threats posed by Iran, especially given Washington’s unyielding desire to curb its ability to possess sophisticated nuclear technology in the future and its opposition to the lifting of the arms embargo. In addition, in the context of the Vienna talks, the US refuses to offer guarantees that it will not pull out of the agreement again or decline to abolish some sanctions, while it also wants to include in the amended agreement Iran’s regional behavior and its ballistic missile program. However, Washington is, at the same time, cautious not to push Iran into China and Russia’s embrace.
Even though Raisi adopts a hard-line position regarding Iran’s interests, agreeing to some of America’s demands will put him in a deeply awkward situation at home. He urgently needs an emergency plan to revive Iran’s steeply deteriorating economy. The protests are reducing the time and room for maneuver available to him, especially since the customary crackdown alone is not sufficient to silence the Iranian people.
The Americans can also secure greater compromises through keeping the sanctions in place, thus further damaging Raisi’s already questionable legitimacy and perhaps disrupting the smooth transition of power by reinstating the Trump-era approach. For the US, this would turn the table on the conservatives, led by the supreme leader, inflicting domestic woes on them and diminishing their chances of achieving any significant accomplishments at home that might allay the mounting tensions, not only among the masses but also the apparatuses of the regime. The latter have begun to express their distrust toward the hard-liners, particularly because of their dominant control over the branches of power as a result of the June presidential election and their attempts to impose a new political structure that would exclude a huge segment of the political class from the branches of power.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami