Author: Ksawery Czerniewicz
The largest social protests in nearly a decade occurred in Iran at the turn of the year. The demonstrations were not the creation of countries hostile to Tehran, but of internal opponents of President Hassan Rouhani who provoked the outburst to exploit people’s dissatisfaction with their socio-economic situation.
© Stewart Innes (PAP/EPA). Tehran, Iran, June 17, 2005. The Spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, votes in the presidential elections in Tehran.
The protests began as hopes failed for benefits flowing from the removal of sanctions on Iran. The improvement of macroeconomic indicators, due to the increase in oil revenues from exports, did not translate into an improved situation for ordinary people who finally took to the streets. The protest quickly took on a political tone, with its ire aimed not only at the president, but also at the great Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and even the regime as a whole. The radicalization of the protest immediately provoked a brutal reaction from the authorities, supported by both the so-called reformers and conservatives – although in the initial phase of the protests both rival camps were quite restrained, apparently waiting for the development of events.
The first demonstration took place on December 28 in Mashhad, after which the street protests quickly spread to other cities. On December 30, the wave of dissatisfaction reached Tehran. After three days of indecision, the surprised authorities counterattacked, opting for brutal repression, even though the demonstrations were peaceful. Through social media, mainly Instagram and Telegram, people learned in advance in which cities the police and paramilitary militias had the order to shoot into the crowd – then the organizers canceled the protest to avoid casualties. On January 3, after six days of riots, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Mohammad Ali Jafari announced “the end of the revolt”, although the last protests did not end until January 6–7. On January 8, the authorities canceled the state of emergency. According to official data, twenty-two people died in the riots, according to the opposition, over fifty. According to information provided by the courts, over a thousand people were arrested throughout the country. However, the real number is known to be up to several times greater. Over 450 people were arrested in Tehran alone. Member of Parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi, for example, reported that at least 3,700 people were arrested. There were cases of deaths of those detained in prison – the most common cause being classified as “suicide”. Many detained participants of the protests face the charge of “war against God” (moharebeh), which threatens them with the death penalty.
Official data claims that no more than 42,000 people took to the streets. There were more of course, but certainly not hundreds of thousands as in 2009. On the scale of a country with eighty million people, this is not much. In addition, there was a lack of coordination and efficient organization of the protests for various reasons. First, it all started with a provocation in one place, so it was not a planned revolution. Second, the opposition did not have a strong leader or anyone aspiring to this role. Third, the situation in the region helped the authorities: Iranians themselves admit that the example of Syria, Egypt and Libya, where the attempt to enforce a regime change only led to destabilization, turmoil and war, had a moderating influence on most people.
In contrast to the protests of 2009 against the rigged elections, this time the demonstrators presented a whole range of issues, from economic and social demands calling for a change in the political system. If the middle class, the intelligentsia and students were protesting in 2009, now it was the workers and people from the bottom of society, that is, the traditional base of the regime. The geography of protests also had a much wider scope: seventy to eighty towns. However, the protests had no chance of turning into a revolution that would overthrow the Islamic republic. First of all, the security apparatus – having drawn conclusions from 2009 – was prepared for such a situation. Structural changes were introduced in the IRGC and paramilitary Basij organization. The police forces’ ability to fight demonstrations was also increased. Secondly, the regime turned out to be consolidated and determined to defend itself. The division into reformers and conservatives disappeared in the face of attempts to change the system.
Mossad, Budget and Eggs
At the end of January, Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari issued a report on the causes of the outbreak of the protests. He gave three main reasons. First, the actions of external enemies, like the U.S. and their allies in the region. Second, the decline in public confidence resulting from the weakness of institutions and organizations. Third, “incorrect management of public opinion” and an increase in public expectations and demands as a result of unrealistic election promises made without taking into account the resources and real capabilities of the country. This fits in with the narrative about the “hostile foreign conspiracy” adopted at the beginning, but also makes an accurate diagnosis about the socio-economic basis of the protest.
Of course, excuses citing a “foreign conspiracy” do not seem credible and Iran has not provided strong evidence for it. On January 2, Ayatollah Khamenei spoke about the activities of “enemies of Iran”. Three days later, during Friday prayers in Tehran, the influential cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami thundered: “The demands of the nation, if they really come from the nation, must be heard and its problems resolved, but the voices speaking out on Trump’s and Netanyahu’s orders are unacceptable they will be suppressed by the nation.” In turn, on January 6, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo, said at a Security Council meeting that his government had “hard evidence” that the latest protests in Iran were “very clearly controlled from abroad”. A more detailed picture of the “conspiracy” was presented by the Prosecutor General of Iran. Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said that in order to trigger mass protests a special group was organized under the leadership of the head of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center, Michael D’Andrea, working in concert with the Mossad. The operation was to be financed by Saudi Arabia. These enemies were to use the People’s Mujahideen (Mojahedin-e Khalq), recognized as a terrorist organization by Tehran, monarchists, nationalists, and even groups associated with communists. In the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil and Afghanistan, two operational groups were reportedly prepared, ready to stoke the protests with IS fighters.
The real basis for the protests, meanwhile, was in growing dissatisfaction with the socio-economic situation. The first slogans included: stopping the rise in prices for basic necessities, lowering unemployment, reducing corruption and reducing spending on a militant foreign policy, and redirecting these funds to internal needs. To understand the meaning of these demands, it is necessary to recall the economic situation of Iran at the end of 2017. GDP grew for the second year in a row, but good macroeconomic indicators were in no way correlated to the standard of living of ordinary Iranians. The nuclear deal with the Western powers, which entered into force at the beginning of 2016, primed the economy but did not fulfill the hopes placed in it. One of the reasons for dissatisfaction are double-digit inflation rates. In 2017, the economy grew by 4.1 percent, but prices are growing even faster (ten percent inflation). The price of eggs, one of the main components of the diet of poorer Iranians, increased as much as eighty percent over two weeks in December. Unemployment, which fell in 2016, increased again in 2017, reaching 12.5 percent (twenty percent in small cities, thirty percent among young people). Income inequality increased, and according to various estimates, from forty to sixty percent of Iranians are included in the poorest layers of society. The benefits of repealing the sanctions imposed on the oil and banking sectors could be seen on a macro scale. On the micro scale, ordinary Iranians did not feel them, with the exception of groups close to the regime; the religious organizations of various influential priests have annual budgets approximating those of small towns.
© Abedin Taherkenareh (PAP/EPA), Tehran, Iran, October 13, 2007. Iranian women participate in prayers in Tehran on the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, celebrated at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.
A wave of dissatisfaction was triggered on December 12 with the publication of the budget for 2018 anticipating cuts in social spending, such as an increase in gasoline prices or a significant reduction of the popular cash support program introduced in 2010, with a simultaneous increase in expenditure on IRGC and religious foundations. The protests broke out just after details of the secret part of the budget leaked on the internet, including data on the scale of financing of two IRGC structures: the special al-Quds formation operating outside Iran and the Basij paramilitary formation. Both groups, actively involved in Syria, were allocated over $11 billion for “ongoing expenses” under the classified articles of the budget act. Apparently this gigantic “co-financing” was won by a new favorite of Ayatollah Khamenei, Brigadier General Gholamhossein Gheybparvar, commander of Basij, and earlier the head of Iranian military advisers in Syria for over a year. His growing influence does not please the government technocrats from the Rouhani government. The leak can be considered an element of the struggle in the ruling camp.
Structural, socio-economic problems alone are not enough to trigger mass protests. Iran already struggled in recent years with deprivation or high prices for rice, poultry, and rising prices for vegetables and fruits. But it did not lead to demonstrations. Just as they were not caused by a high level of unemployment or deep wealth inequality. The more so because despite everything there was an improvement under the Rouhani government. The catalyst for the protests was political intrigue capitalizing on the unfulfilled hopes of society. The Iranian authorities have long promised people prosperity, claiming that in the end, after the sanctions were removed, the country’s economy would flourish (previously, the rulers gladly cast blame on Western sanctions, which were especially onerous for the oil sector).
However, the problem is the very structure of the Iranian economy. The state has over-involved itself in business matters; state ownership dominates with low production efficiency as a result. The budget depends to a large extent on petrodollars. The high level of corruption, administrative burdens and elements of the so-called Islamic economy, all hinder economic development. Instead of reforming, the authorities kept repeating that the bad financial situation of people is the fault of sanctions. After two years passed since the sanctions disappeared and nothing changed in the life of ordinary Iranians, many felt cheated, with reformers like Rouhani at the forefront – in which they had placed their hopes for a change for the better.
The protests at the turn of December and January were the biggest challenge for the authorities of Iran, since Rouhani, regarded as a moderate politician, assumed the presidency in 2013 promising greater openness of the regime and economic reforms. He won again in the 2017 election, leading an openly reformist campaign against his “hard-headed” rival. Now, however, many of his supporters believe that he is not keeping his promises. Critics point to the fact that since Rouhani became president, defense expenditures increased by eighteen percent, and for religious institutions by as much as twenty-six percent. Rouhani’s image was also badly affected by a series of collapsed financial schemes. New banks, generally without a license, lured clients with high (forty percent per annum) interest on deposits. Their commercials were common on television, which in Iran are usually believed. After some time, the authorities began to close illegal financial institutions and customers who lost their savings and demanded their return from the state. In some cases it happened, but the scale of the losses turned out to be so large that the money simply ran out.
Meanwhile, investigations against the owners of a couple of banks are proceeding sluggishly and Rouhani has spouted off that the victims are themselves guilty because they entrusted their money into uncertain hands. The president also lost a lot in the eyes of the minority population. Although Sunnis, representing about ten percent of the country’s population, supported him as a block in the election, he completely ignored them when composing his cabinet. He never even appointed one Sunni governor in any of the thirty-one provinces. Rouhani was also silent when the Guardian Council (responsible only to the great Ayatollah and acting as a filter for all government legislative initiatives, giving opinions on candidates for high positions), rejected a parliamentary project and blocked the participation of non-Muslims in local elections.
All this was taken advantage of by the conservative faction opposing Rouhani. The conflict intensified at the beginning of December, when the presidential camp attacked the public power structures, accusing them of trying to increase their share of the budget for 2018 despite the economic problems. In response, the conservatives and their media began to accuse the president for the failure of economic policy and the failure to fulfill promises given to the public. The first protests took place not in Tehran, but in Mashhad – the bastion of the regime. They were provoked by the sermons of Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a conservative cleric associated with Khamenei, and also a relative of the head of one of the largest religious foundations, Astan Quds Razavi, chaired by Ebrahim Raisi.
The protests were to be a prelude to starting impeachment proceedings. But when people noticed that they could protest without being subjected to repression, slogans of “Death to Rouhani!” quickly morphed into slogans against the whole regime. At the very height of the riots, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a close ally of Rouhani, stated that “When a social and political movement is launched on the streets, those who started it will not necessarily be able to control it in the end. Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers”.
Having provoked demonstrations, the conservatives quickly lost control over them.
Throughout the country, people with increasingly radical slogans started to come out onto the streets. A novelty were slogans along the lines of “Death to Khamenei!” and the burning portraits of the ayatollahs. The protests were no longer limited to demands for reform. The names of the leaders of the reformatory camp were not highlighted, but the name of the son of the last Shah did appear. This radicalism surprised both reformers and conservatives. Initially, some of the reformers, such as Mostafa Tajzadeh, the head of the Election Office in the presidential administration of Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), defended people’s right to protest. But as violence intensified, Rouhani”s supporters began to condemn the demonstrations. Conservatives did the same following the signal given by a sharp statement on January 2 from Ayatollah Khamenei.
No External Shocks
From the beginning of the protests, the main question was if they would somehow affect Iran’s foreign policy. However, before the surprised countries, including the U.S. and Russia, formulated a final position, it became clear that the protests would not threaten the rulers in Tehran. All the more, there was no threat to Iran’s current foreign policy line. Although its critics appeared among the demonstrators, they were primarily economic (one motto “Not Gaza, not Syria, not Lebanon – our country is Iran!”).
Tehran has spent billions on its regional ambitions in recent years. Until 2005, experts estimated that Iran was giving Hezbollah about $200 million a year. Nor can one forget the large sums paid to Hezbollah hospitals and social institutions by various Iranian religious foundations, including those directly controlled by the Ayatollah. With the increase of Hezbollah military involvement in the region, mainly in Syria, Iranian expenses on the Shiite satellite increased to between $800 million to $1 billion dollars a year. The annual costs of supporting Assad’s regime were another several billion. State-owned banks in Iran opened credit lines for Assad in 2013 and 2015 for a total of $4.6 billion. Help for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip has recently risen to $100 million annually. Large funds are sent for the IRGC’s participation in special and military operations abroad, as well as support for the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq (a coalition of Shiite militias) and organizations like Badra. In addition, there is aid to Shiite organizations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, and of course, involvement in the Yemeni war on the side of the Houthi rebellion.
During the protests, such slogans as “Leave Syria, think about us” appeared. However, the claims of Donald Trump or regional Arab leaders that one of the main motives for the protests was dissatisfaction with the foreign policy of the state can be regarded as wishful political thinking at best. Besides, surveys indicate that the majority of Iranians approve of the foreign policy of the state, i.e. supporting Hezbollah, helping Assad and not recognizing the state of Israel. There were also no significant signs of anxiety on the side of Tehran’s allies. Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah downplayed the protests, saying that they are small, have no political basis, and are fueled by the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this way, he extinguished Hezbollah supporters’ fears of losing support from Iran. A similar position was taken by the Iraqi vice-president, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, one of the leaders of the Shiite camp in Baghdad, saying that the protests are an “internal matter” of Iran.
© Abedin Taherkenareh (PAP/EPA), Tehran, Iran, August 15, 2017. Newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech to the parliament during a session to discuss his proposed cabinet. According to media reports Rouhani warned of the possibility that the Islamic Republic could pull out of the nuclear deal signed with the world’s major powers within hours if the United States keeps on imposing new sanctions.
One of the slogans during the demonstration was “Death to Russia!” – which resulted from the widespread belief among Iranians that Moscow is the main supporter of the regime. Russia is waging war in Syria alongside Iran, provides nuclear and missile technologies to Iran, and supports Iran’s anti-Western policy. The collapse of the regime in Iran would be a serious blow to the Kremlin for two reasons. First of all, it would complicate the Middle Eastern policy of Russia and could even cost her the main ally in the region. Without the tens of thousands of Shiite fighters supported by Iran, Assad’s army would also lose its position. That would lead to increased Russian involvement in the war in order to save the regime, which is risky from a public relations perspective. In addition, Putin is extremely hostile to any such revolution, fearing a similar revolt in Russia. However, the first announcements from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were extremely restrained and even neutral – probably as a result of surprise, but perhaps also the knowledge that at least the initiation of the demonstrations was the result of domestic intrigue in Iran. It was not until January 2 that the Russians returned to the usual rhetoric, blaming the protests on “external factors”. And on January 4, they warned the U.S. to not interfere in the internal affairs of Iran. This coincided with the regaining of control over the situation by the Iranian regime.
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