Within the past two weeks, unexpected protests have erupted in cities and villages across Iran. While these protests began as small demonstrations by hardliners in traditionally conservative cities, they have now become country-wide upheaval, so far resulting in the deaths of twenty-one protesters and nearly one thousand arrests.
Periodic protests are quite common in Iran. Most famously, in 1979, deadly riots broke out across Iran calling for the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the establishment of an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. More recently in 2009, Iranians took to the streets after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory over his moderate opponent Mir-Hussein Mousavi. These largely disputed victory spurred the Green Movement, where Iranians took to the streets with the question: “Where is my vote?”
In addition to these two well-known examples, there have been a flurry of other protests: in July of 1999, students at the University of Tehran participated in pro-democracy demonstrations; in 2003, many of these same students protested the clerical establishment; in 2007, protests erupted in opposition to oil sanctions imposed by the Iranian government on its own people. As a result of all of these protests, the Islamist regime has cracked down on protesters. After the Shah was overthrown in 1979, academics, journalists, and progressive thinkers were imprisoned; in 2009, the leaders of the Green Movement were placed under house arrest; even in 2003, over one thousand students were jailed.
These normally political protests have generally been driven by Iran’s educated middle class—those who have the resources and the numbers to demand change. And these protests have generally served the purpose of standing up for the reformation of a corrupt regime. Yet it is exactly this that separates these recent protests from previous ones: while some students and members of the urban middle class have definitely participated in these protests, they are not the driving force or the core of them.
Causes of Current Protests
Early protests, beginning on December 28, appeared to have been fueled by a frustration towards the economic stagnation and high unemployment that has been rampant throughout Iran since the reelection of President Hassan Rouhani, who promised changed within the first one hundred days of his second term, in May of 2017. The first sparks of protest began as public outcry against doubled egg prices, which were symptomatic of the inflation and job loss facing the country. Despite the projected success, the Iran nuclear deal did not produce the economic development Iranians were promised. Experts cite widespread disappointment coming out of the nuclear deal, especially among the lower classes of Iran, as fuel for the protests.
This has, in a sense, separated these protests from typical Iranian protests, which have generally been driven by the middle class, namely students, in large population centers, such as Tehran.
Yet these protests, which originated in religious strongholds, began to take different tones upon their expansion and have become more political, instead of solely economic. And as more protesters became involved, the lack of a common cause became apparent. Tehrani women have taken to protesting the regime’s sexism. Iranians across the country have gathered in chanting “Death to the dictator.” These actions do not at all resemble the initial, economic protests that rejected Rouhani’s reformism. The only unification that protesters have is a broad dissatisfaction with the regime.
Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, argues that, in spite of these differences, these protests are, at their core, slightly differing manifestations of the same problem. According to Milani, this problem is the authoritarian domination of the Iranian clergy over Iranian society, whether it be through electoral politics (as seen in 2009) or dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy (as seen recently).
This lack of structural unification differentiates these protests from others: in 1978 and 1979, protesters were unified against the Shah and eventually consolidated under the leadership of Khomeini; in 2009, protesters were unified in their desire for democracy, led by Mousavi. In the case of recent protests, while they appear to have been sparked by conservative religious hardliners to thwart Rouhani, it has become obvious that many Iranians have taken this as an opportunity to move past this original, intended goal: this has become an opportunity for individuals to rise up and denounce a regime that has been oppressing freedom for decades.
The Iranian government’s initial response to the uprising included militant police force and censorship of social media outlets. The Iranian government has restricted the use of both Telegram and Instagram, apps largely used by the Iranian people both to organize and to communicate with those outside the country. Though the government has attempted to make communication as difficult as possible, Iranians have still been able to organize and protest, in addition to posting harrowing, dangerous, and awe-inspiring videos that have attracted some attention among foreign news outlets.
Rouhani, however, has spoken against his hardline colleagues, mentioning that the regime should not dictate the lives of Iranian citizens and that Iranians have a right to protest peacefully. He stated that the government should listen to the protesters, in both their economic and political demands. He has also openly diverged from hardliners, stating that Telegram would be reopened, before other forces in the government gave any indication. Though many of the protesters have openly chanted “marg bar Rouhani” (death to Rouhani) and are, in large part, protesting because of his administration's lack of ability to bring economic change, the Iranian president has lukewarmly taken their side in their battle with the hardline establishment. Milani believes, however, that Rouhani’s pro-protest comments have come too late and that Rouhani should have been vocal within days of these protests’ start. With Rouhani’s backing, protesters could have gained more momentum, along with greater organization in demanding concessions from the regime.
The only concession that the regime appears to have made is a statement by Tehrani authorities that they will not arrest women for failing to wear the hijab under certain circumstances. This story seems to be the regime’s attempt to appease Iranian women and, in Western reports, has been sensationalized, with headlines stating that women will no longer be arrested for violating Islamic dress. Yet buried past the headlines lies the key caveat that a woman’s hijab must “accidently” fall off to avoid punishment, (something that almost never happens) which will be followed by an educational Islam class. Whether or not this was an attempt to appease Iranian women, or a thinly veiled attempt at modernity that Iran could show Westerners, this law did not prevent protesters from continuing to demonstrate.
The Iranian government has also staged pro-government demonstrations in response to the protests, with rallies chanting “death to America,” a tactic commonly used by the regime when it feels threatened. These pro-regime protests were broadcast on Iranian state media, which Iranian politicians used to flex its muscles. After these counter-protests, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared that the “Seditious Protests of 1396” (current Iranian year) were over and that sedition had been defeated. So far, however, no news source outside of those controlled by the Iranian state has been able to confirm either this or Jafari’s unfounded claims that attempted to make the protests appear powerless, such as his mentioning that only 15,000 protesters came out or that all of the “trouble-makers” had been arrested.
Milani states that there are key differences between this generation of protesters and that of those who brought the Iranian revolution: whereas the utopian protesters of the Islamic Revolution sought to completely overturn society, today’s generation of protesters recognize that small changes and working within the regime are precursors to democratic change. He states that the regime’s current authoritarian control of the population is untenable, given younger generations’ demands for democracy (thoughts that have been echoed by Rouhani). Yet the time at which true changes begin to permeate the Iranian political system depends on various factors: the regime itself, the organized opposition, foreign intervention, the Iranian diaspora, and, most importantly, those who live in Iran.
Though these protests can look like an opportunity for the West to speed up the regime’s collapse, Milani warns of the simplicity of American jingoists, including President Donald Trump, who tweeted that it was time for change in Iran’s power structure. The movement for regime change should not be co-opted by non-Iranian actors, as the effects of such a move on the part of the West could result in a worse situation in Iran, resembling what occurred in Libya or Iraq. This is not to say that the West should have no role in Iran—it can help protesters by ensuring technological freedom and the openness of social media to help Iranians organize. But this role should not evolve into any type of ideological or tactical control, lest the West repeat its mistakes in the Middle East.
To make sense of these protests, outsiders—whether Western government officials or politically-interested individuals—must understand the nuances and complexities of both the Iranian political system and the complaints that Iranians have against their government. As Iranian-American analyst Holly Dagres states, much of what foreign actors are saying ends up hurting the protesters.
As the Iranian people continue to protest, it becomes increasingly clear that the existing power structure of the Islamic Republic is unsustainable: these protests are a manifestation of the regime’s inability to satisfy its people. With moderate voices of dissent within the government against the hardline conservatism of the Supreme Leader, protesters taking to the streets, massive brain drain, and an unfriendly global economy, it is obvious this regime will soon have to undergo change. What this change looks like—whether it is gradual or overhauling—depends on the perseverance of the dissenters both in the streets and in the government as well as on the actions of the regime.
Ashton Hashemipour is the World Editor for the Gate; Ava Sharifi is a Contributing Writer. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Ashton Hashemipour is a second-year Political Science major interested in international relations and foreign policy. This summer, he interned at Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s district office here in Chicago. On campus, he’s the Director of Publication at EUChicago, a Chair for the Model UN Conference the university hosts, and on the International Policy Program at the Institute of Politics.
Ava Sharifi is a first year in the College interested in Sociology and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Ava has worked as an intern with various campaigns in Virginia, most recently Ralph Northam’s campaign for Virginia Governor. On campus, she is an active member of the Chicago Debate Society and works at Ace Tech High School in Washington Park. Ava enjoys kombucha, history podcasts, and her dog Olive.