Iran regime struggles to survive as it grapples with popular protests

Iran regime struggles to survive as it grapples with popular protests

Iran regime struggles to survive as it grapples with popular protests
Rescue crews work at the site of a ten-story building collapse in Abadan, Iran, May 23, 2022. (Reuters)
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A new wave of protests against Iran’s regime and its policies have swept across several Iranian cities in recent weeks. These protests were triggered by the government’s decision to reduce subsidies for imported wheat, sending food prices soaring — adding to the public’s suffering amid dire economic conditions and accelerating deterioration in their living standards.
These protests have once again exposed the government’s failure to keep its promises and revealed the vast fraudulence of President Ebrahim Raisi’s election campaign slogans that vowed to combat price hikes and alleviate the suffering of the Iranian people. The protests have spread like wildfire across Iranian cities and provinces since Raisi took office last August, with chants calling explicitly for the government to resign. Others shouted, “Raisi is a liar,” “Where are your promises?” and “R.I.P. Shah.”
The Iranian government’s domestic economic policies have been characterized by a complete inability to resolve the problems arising from economic deterioration, namely soaring prices. In addition, the government’s political policies have restricted already-limited public freedoms, prompting some voices to call for radical change.
Ongoing blanket sanctions on the Iranian economy have acted as a multiplier, exacerbating the existing social and economic pressures on the country’s people, as well as imposing significant constraints on Iran’s economic relations with the rest of the world, causing its oil sales to fall and costing the regime billions of dollars, especially after Iran was placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s blacklist as part of the sanctions package. The Iranian government’s stubbornness and noncompliance with international laws have hampered its ties with international banks, severely impacting domestic economic and social affairs and leading to increased inflation and worsening poverty and unemployment rates.
The current unrest raises questions about how prepared the Iranian leadership is for the worsening crisis ahead as popular anger continues to mount. In fact, the Raisi government has already taken a host of measures in an effort to swiftly deal with the protests and ease public discontent, announcing the forthcoming provision of emergency subsidies to compensate for the current price hikes. The Iranian government’s budget, however, may not enable it to provide the promised subsidies due to the fiscal deficit caused by the lack of any effective long-term plan for macroeconomic stability. Any hope of realizing such plans can only result from a stable Iranian foreign policy toward the rest of the world, primarily its neighbors. Without this political stability, Iran’s violent economic cycles will continue, throwing the country’s future into greater turbulence and uncertainty.
Though the Iranian regime has announced stopgap remedies to alleviate the daily pressures on Iran’s people, these are ineffectual Band-Aid solutions to stem a swelling, massive tide of popular rage. The one common denominator in the Iranian regime’s approach to dealing with most of the popular and factional protests that have broken out in Iran thus far is the use of a heavy security crackdown to punish and intimidate protesters. This is typically achieved by using the regime’s massive security apparatus first to isolate and cut off the cities and provinces where protests are taking place and then to brutally assault and terrorize the protesters, tightening the security forces’ iron control over protest hotspots, even while proposing “reform” measures to mitigate the consequences of the subsidies policy. It seems, however, that this standard policy of repression is unlikely to ease public anger, with the protests likely to continue as long as the country’s living and economic conditions continue to deteriorate.
There are several potential scenarios that could emerge as a consequence of the latest protests.
The first scenario sees the protests succeeding in changing the regime. This is, frankly, unlikely given the limited scale of the protests compared to the regime’s vast military might, which has managed to crush previous, far larger protests. The protesters in this scenario would also face immense security obstacles, foremost of them being the readiness of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij and the regime’s other security apparatuses to use any and all possible means to contain the protests to protect their own massive financial interests, which are wholly dependent on the regime’s survival. It is also noticeable that Western media outlets are giving no attention to the massive protests rocking Iran, with their primary and sole focus being on the Russian-Ukraine conflict.
The second possible scenario sees the protests continuing until the behavior of the regime and its ruling elite changes. This is also extremely unlikely; the regime has regularly faced protests often far larger than the current ones since its establishment in 1979 and it has always doubled down on rather than modified its behavior in response.
The third scenario would see some adaptation and adjustment from the regime in order to contain the protests. This is apparent from the regime’s now-standard approach of focusing on a “security” solution, using violence against protesters and putting derogatory labels on them, such as “subordinates” and “stooges.” Simultaneously, the regime would attempt to quell popular rage by making some stopgap price cuts.

The current unrest raises questions about how prepared the Iranian leadership is for the worsening crisis ahead.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Though the protests are still ongoing, they are unlikely to change the regime or even force it to change its behavior. If the protests intensify in the coming days, the regime may be persuaded to accept compromises in relation to its negotiations with the US in order to swiftly reach an agreement and have the sanctions lifted. Nonetheless, the growing schism between the Iranian regime and the people of Iran will persist, particularly in light of the emergence of development megaprojects in neighboring countries. The Iranian people look at these projects with agony. These projects have turned the Iranian regime’s slogans into a source of mockery and derision among the Iranian people, who have grown weary of economic deterioration, which the regime continues to leave unaddressed.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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