Protests in Iran highlight socio-politico-economic malaise, likely to be credibility test for Hassan Rouhani govt

As the world celebrates New Year, Iran is witnessing a violent civil uprising across different parts of the country, including capital Tehran. With reports of 12 deaths so far, these protests highlight an apparent socio-politico-economic malaise in Iran, which has exacerbated under the President Hassan Rouhani's government. The unrest started in Iran's second largest city, Mashhad, on 28 December. What reportedly started as a small gathering to denounce recent price rise and alleged corruption, possibly ignited by the Opposition "hardliners", has turned into an anti-regime protest. The current unrest is an eye-opener for the dispensation in Tehran, and yet another credibility test for Rouhani, since his re-election as the country's president in May 2017.

Protests in Iran highlight socio-politico-economic malaise, likely to be credibility test for Hassan Rouhani govt

File image of anti-riot Iranian police preventing students from joining other protesters. AP

There are underlining issues that have been the cause of frustration and discontent among the local people: lackadaisical economic policies, soaring fuel and food prices, lack of job opportunities, alleged corruption charges, and the government's alleged priority to foreign policy matters over domestic reforms.

Some reports suggest that the youth unemployment stands at over 40 percent, with sluggish state-owned enterprises controlling significant sectors of the economy, and the unilateral US sanctions preventing foreign financial transactions in Iran. At the same time, the recent depreciation of the Iranian currency resulted in inflation of staple food products such as a 40 percent increase in the price of eggs. Furthermore, the government introduced a "departure tax" last month which would increase the departure prices three times whenever Iranians travel outside the country. Many people also feel upset about the government's appropriations for religious and military institutions. These factors may have directly contributed to the current uprising.

Still, street demonstrations over economic disparities are not uncommon in Iran. What seems distinctive about these protests is how quickly a small gathering, likely sanctioned by hardliners to undermine the moderate government, mixed with political slogans evolved into a mass anti-regime agitation across different cities in Iran. Protesters may have advertently crossed the red-line by openly questioning the government's interventions in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, where Iran is engaged in an alleged proxy war for influence against regional rival Saudi Arabia. Some have expressed their frustration over the regime's priority to regional problems over sorting domestic issues.

The current uprising is being considered as the most widespread unrest in the country since the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 — though the magnitude differs thus far. The 2009 agitation was largely restricted in the capital Tehran and lasted for months, whereas, the ongoing unrest is only a few days old. But the current unrest has reached most corners of Iran from Kermanshah in the west to Chahbahar in the South. Still, it is unclear for how long the Rouhani government will allow the demonstrations.

Iran’s interior minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli warned protestors that their actions will have consequences, "Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and pay the price." But the agitated protestors, despite Rouhani's acknowledgement of the discontent and frustrated by the apparent inefficient governance, has so far defied these warnings.

Iranian authorities have blocked the messaging app Telegram, which the protestors have reportedly been using to spread the news about the rallies in different parts of the country. Interestingly, these protests have so far been leaderless and scattered. Initial demonstrations were organised to target Rouhani's economic policies. But it soon took a political turn, with a number of protesters calling on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down, and reported chants of "death to the dictator"—a clear reference to Khamenei—are witness to growing frustration among a section of the Iranian population against the cleric's rule.

Such chants are unprecedented and rare in Iran. Khamenei holds the ultimate authority as he rules for life and is the commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces. He appoints the head of the judiciary and has more power over the country's economic and foreign policy than the elected president. Therefore, criticising him can be seen as an act of sedition. Moreover, a direct attack on Khamenei would not go down well with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). If the protests do not die down soon, the IRGC may consider a "violent crackdown" against the demonstrators. Many protesters faced imprisonment, and a few hundred may have been killed during the 2009 agitation.

Demonstrations are particularly troublesome for Rouhani because he fought a tough election last year against the hardline Ibrahim Raesi mainly on the promises of creating a more free society and revitalising the country's economy. His electoral support came largely from the working lower and middle class, who were expecting more jobs and foreign investments after the signing of the P5+1 nuclear agreement in 2015, that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme in return for a lift on most international sanctions. But the deal is yet to provide expected economic benefits. Moreover, the Trump administration may soon decide whether to certify Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement to the US Congress.

Relations between Tehran and Washington are at a new low over the developments in Syria, Yemen and Iran's ballistic missile programme. Last year, the US imposed new sanctions to target Iranian military's or IRGC's missile programme. Considering these factors, the future of the nuclear deal remains doubtful. Its termination may jeopardise the Rouhani government's legitimacy as a potential alternative for the hardliners in Iran which, in turn, may further agitate the locals. Furthermore, the unrest may provide ammunition to the Trump administration against Iran as Washington has already condemned the "arrest of peaceful protesters", and blamed the "Iran's leaders" for the precarious situation in the country.

The regime change seems unlikely at the moment as the local authorities will soon control the demonstrations either forcefully or through negotiations with the leaderless protesters. Still, the whole episode has revealed some gaping holes in the Rouhani administration. Avoiding the regime change may prove to be more difficult for Rouhani now due to possible reasons such as growing restlessness among the local population, emboldened hardliners, a resurgent regional rival Saudi Arabia and a not-so-friendly US administration.

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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2018 20:29:50 IST

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