What’s the Price of Popular Protests?

Protests have abruptly sparked in Iran as a consequence of the rise in oil prices. Manifestations started with civilians abandoning their vehicles in the streets, but soon escalated to violent confrontation with governmental forces and vandalization of public offices. Picture: Wikimedia commons

Banks destroyed, internet and communication crackdown, over 300 victims and total chaos in the streets. These are the latest news from Iran, where the population has once again taken their recriminations to the streets, speaking up for the world to hear. It is not the first time that the Iranian population reacts to the government with such intensity, but some say this time is different, this time will take another turn. Economic crisis, sanctions, the Nuclear Deal, the U.S., and also Hezbollah, Israel, oil, bread: they all played a role in bringing the country to the edge of another revolution. So, what are the reasons behind the latest revolts in Iran?

Protests sparked on Friday, November 15th,  spreading across the country even faster than the 1979 revolution. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the abrupt rise in oil prices of over 50% imposed by the government. Manifestation started with citizens abandoning their cars in the middle of the street in sign of protest, but soon escalated to widespread violence. Banks, stores and governmental offices set on fire and vandalized provoked the regime’s response, which was heavy and unexpected.

According to Amnesty International, live bullets were shot at unarmed protesters from rooftops and helicopters, means of communication were neutralized through an internet shutdown that lasted four days and over 7000 protesters were arrested by authorities. The regime was also accused of denying victims’ bodies to return to their families, in an attempt to conceal the actual estimation of deaths, yet further ‘action’ has been threatened by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were protesters to continue disturbing security.

Iran is not new to protests: in 2017, people took to the streets to denounce ‘economic hardship and political repression’, and as is happening right now, the government responded by disconnecting means of mass communication, suppressing unrests and promising action to improve life conditions of civilians.

Political discontent was also the root of revolts in 2009, where disorders only spread across the capital Tehran before being suppressed by a much higher degree of violence, with ‘dozens of opposition supporters killed and thousands detained’. What perpetually arouses people’s anger is the tendency of the government to corruption, cronyism and nepotism that affects the judiciary system, the police, the administration of natural resources, as well as media and politics, whose extreme censorship and repression have been repeatedly denounced.

The population’s economic grievances have also reached new peaks following the latest development in Iran’s foreign policy. Since 2015, the country has in fact been part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), deal signed with the ‘P5+1’ (US, France, China, UK, Germany and Russia). The agreement has the aim of containing the nuclear development of Iran reducing its permitted levels of uranium enrichment in exchange for the suspension of economic sanctions imposed on the country for ‘human rights situations’ and ‘support for terrorism’.

In May 2018, President Donal Trump decided the withdrawal of the US from the agreement, bringing back the pre-deal sanctions while imposing new ones. This resulted into a definitive hit to the Iranian economy whose inflation has risen to over 40%, damaging its welfare system and dramatically affecting living costs for the population. The tactic behind Washington’s manoeuvre was to compel Iran through heavy handed sanctions and overall pressure to return to the table of negotiations to re-discuss the terms of the deal, in order to obtain a version of it that better responds to the U.S.’s interests.

President Rouhani has recently paid a visit to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, reportedly with the aim of improving its relations with the U.S. through a common partner, ultimately hoping for an ease on sanctions and hostilities. Tension between the two countries remains, and predictions for the future are difficult to make.


U.S. President Donald Trump signed the withdrawal of the US from the nuclear deal with Iran on August 6, 2018. Photo: blogs.state

Iran has also taken steps away from the deal, complicating the position of the remaining signatory states, who are interested not only in avoiding the total collapse of the Iranian fragile economic situation, but also in containing its potential for further nuclear development. At the same time, however, the UN has threatened new sanctions because of Iran’s refusal to comply to the deals’ guidelines on its missile program. As a consequence, the EU, China and Russia find themselves forced to stay in an increasingly complex situation.

Relationships with Iran are not easy to maintain, especially with regards to the country’s open support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Far from supporting this stance, chants have risen from the crowds to say ‘No Gaza. No Lebanon, I give my life for Iran’, while calling for ‘Death to the Dictator’. It is estimated that Hezbollah receives a yearly donation of $700 million from the government, while Palestinian groups are awarded around $100 million, while the majority of the population is crushed by high unemployment levels and economic difficulties. Ties with these organizations are particularly unlikely to be revised by Iran. The groups, in fact, channel the country’s influence in the area and share with it a deep, rooted enmity with Israel and its number one ally, the United States. Partnership with, and especially funding for, these groups has damaged Iran’s reputation and deeply affected its foreign policy, whose consequences are now paid by the population strangled by the effects of sanctions and embargoes.

When discussing accountability, Iranian citizens do not hold back in accusing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for the bloodbath these protests have been turned into. The ‘unprecedented’ excess of violence exercised by the military and the Revolutionary Guards has inspired comparisons to the ‘infamous 1978 massacre by government forces that led to the downfall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi a year later’, raising concerns on what a potential threat this revolutionary sentiment could represent  for the 40-year-long regime.

However, associating current protests to an early stage of an Arab Spring-like revolution would be a simplistic evaluation of circumstances. Iran, in fact, constitutes a unique example of a hybrid regime, which merges the authoritarianism of its supreme leader with a seemingly democratic presence of an elected government. Iranians seem to have well tolerated their political situation until now, although this acceptance tends to be linked with a feared revival of the violence of the Iranian Revolution. Most importantly, since the revolution ‘Iranians have been systemically and consistently challenging and changing their regime on their own terms’, and whether their country needs a deep change or just some retouching will once again be up to the Iranian people. Amidst criticism and condemnation from other countries, a strong sense of nationalism characterizes the popular spirit, and external intromissions would not generate a positive response.

In an attempt to stop protests, the government has reassured the population that the now-200% rise in oil price will be the starting point for redistribution of subsidies and ‘cash transfers to the population’, while preparation for the next general elections, which is expected on of February 21st, continue, although in a climate of disillusion. Turnout is, in fact, expected to be at historical lows, threatening the legitimacy of the future government.

In more recent events, an escalation of violence has recently affected the relations between Iran and the U.S., reaching a potential turning point for the future of the region. The recent development originates from the increased intensity of protests in Iraq, where both Iran and the U.S. are playing a crucial role. On Tuesday, December 31st, the American Embassy was assaulted by Iraqi protesters, which forced the Ambassador to flee the building. This generated a heated exchange of accusations and threats between Iran and the U.S., with the latter accusing Iran of being responsible for the latest events.

On early Friday, January 3rd, President Trump has given the order for an airstrike that killed the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Forces, Qassem Soleimani, and the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Soleimani was by many considered a potential successor of Ayatollah Khamenei for the leadership of the country. Iran has reportedly threatened that there will be revenge and serious consequences to President Trump’s actions. However, the actions are condemned by the U.S. congress which states the congress has never been consulted on the matter and has not given its authorisation. In her statement, Nancy Pelosi affirmed how this decision endangers the lives of many Americans, and brings the U.S. closer to a war the people neither wants nor needs. This situation also affected the economy of Iran, where the price of oil has further increased due to the instability of the political situation.

Within a few days, protests had already spread across over 100 cities in Iran. Violence against civilians had been registered in 21 cities by November 19, 2019. Photo: Marjolein Katsma

It is safe to say that the recent decade has had us getting used to protests, and the ones raging across Iran are among the latest of a very long list. Some have succeeded, some have failed, some died in a quick fire, some burned entire countries down to their foundations. The anger, the power of the people has showed us how the world’s geopolitics can be changed by indignation, frustration and hunger. But most importantly, that the unpredicted is always an option, this time as all the times before. Tomorrow’s Iran could be very different from the one we know.

Laura Sanzarello