Protests in Iran, Put Simply

By Senior Campaign Agent Luke Walpole

Iran continues to be mired in social unrest after almost a week of protests. What began on Thursday December 28th in the religious city of Mashhad has since spun out across the country, with the towns such as Isfahan, Qom and the capital, Tehran, bearing witness to large marches. 

The level of violence has escalated too. As of the January 3rd, 21 people have been killed, whilst over 15,000 are said to have been involved in the rallies across the country. This is the largest protest in Iran since the uprising of 2009, which came in the wake of a General Election some felt was wracked with corruption. 

Originally staged in response to high food prices and unemployment, the protests have since adopted a heavily political flavour. However, it would be a mistake to solely label this as anti-Governmental in a conventional sense. Indeed, last year’s re-election of Hassan Rouhani came with a land-slide, and his reformist impulses have proven particularly popular with many. Yet, tangible frustration with Iran’s flatlining economic progress and stagnating living standards may necessitate concessions and policy changes by the President. However, there has also been anger directed further up the chain of command.  

The structure of Iran’s political system ensures that real power resides with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and Head of State. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran has been a theocratic country, guided by devout Shia principles. Bolstered by the Revolutionary Guards, the Ayatollah’s rule has often been absolute. Moments of discontent have bubbled to the surface, but the current protests arguably mark a sea-change in opinion. Whilst the protests of 2009 were staged by middle class, politically minded malcontents, the last few days have seen working Iranians take to the streets. This is significant because it is this demographic which has traditionally been most supportive of the Ayatollah and his regime. 

Furthermore, this is a protest engineered by the young. More than 70% of Iranians are below the age of 35, a statistic which becomes increasingly important when considering that the oldest of these people would’ve been born in the early 1980s. These Iranians have never known an Iran which isn’t under the sway of the Ayatollah. Their parents lived through one turbulent Revolution, but they’ve always had to rail against a status quo. This isn’t a revival of the Arab Spring, but the generational dimension to the protests sharpens the traditionalist-reformist fault lines which has characterised 21st-century Iran. 

At this juncture, it is heavily unlikely that Iran will descend into a Civil War. Yet, as is often the case in the Middle East, the geo-political ramifications are potentially enormous. Assad’s Syrian regime is heavily dependant on Iran, and has therefore been keen not to draw attention to the protests. On the flip side, Saudi Arabia and Israel have shown more candour. All this without mentioning the influence of Donald Trump and the Americans. 

Trump has consistently questioned the Iran Nuclear Deal hashed out by the Obama Administration during his second term. That deal was considered a major milestone in turning Iranian heads back towards to the West. Not as allies, perhaps, but certainly as less vocal enemies. The bluster of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President of Iran, was replaced by the more flexible Hassan Rouhani. For America to return to a more bellicose relationship with Iran could prove destabilising for the region.

Therefore, these protests represent an ongoing transition in Iran, and carry economic, political and social baggage. Regardless of the longevity of these remonstrations, they will continue to be keenly observed by the outside world. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Ninara @Flickr 

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