Iran Rocked by Widespread Protests

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

January 4, 2018

For the first time since 2009, Iran has been rocked by widespread protests. Unlike the so-called “Green Movement” of 2009, however, this time protesters appear to come from a different cross-section of the society and have mostly economic demands. While some commentators in Iran blame nefarious outside actors, most analysts agree that the underlying cause fueling the protests is the unfulfilled promise of economic wellbeing, especially following the easing of sanctions after the JCPOA nuclear deal.

According to a Tehran Times report, Iran’s security chief has accused Saudi Arabia of being the impetus for the widespread protests: “Noting that the proxy war started via social media and the internet, Shamkhani told a Lebanese Arabic-language TV channel that the number of messages posted on social networks sent online via Saudi Arabia showed they were involved…. Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, a spokesman with the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, said the unrest is led from outside the country and that hegemonic powers are involved…. He slammed Saudi officials’ meddling in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic, saying a country which has never held an election is now apparently defending the rights of the Iranian nation.”

Hurriyet Daily News staff notes that the Turkish government, as well as political actors associated with President Reccep Erdogan’s party, have spoken up in defense of the Iranian regime and against countries like the United States: “Iran is facing very serious manipulation, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson Mahir Ünal said late on Jan. 2 while commenting on the political turmoil in the neighboring country. Speaking in an interview with private broadcaster CNN Türk, Ünal said ‘some global powers’ had intervened in Iran’s social and economic problems…. Without directly blaming the U.S. for the protests in Iran, Ünal said the U.S. ‘wants to make a regional transformation in line with its interests in the region’.

But most observers and regional editorials, including Arab Times’s Ahmed Al-Jarallah, focus on a number of internal causes as the main reason for the protests in Iran: “The ongoing event in Iran is not a revolution or an uprising (intifada) which can be calmed with promises, since the motives are way deeper than the ones which led to the Green Revolution in 2009 in protest of the presidential election and rigging that took place to extend the rule of fundamentalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The current revolution is a revolution of hunger; hearing the screams of 40 percent of jobless Iranians protesting against the high living standard while a handful people control all the wealth of the country, let alone the billions wasted outside Iran under the pretext of ‘revolution export’ which only made Iran more isolated from the world.”

Cautioning against dismissing the demands of the protesters, the Khaleej Times editorial staff argues that the protests are symptoms of Iran’s democratic deficit, as well as its over-extension abroad: “The military-clerical combine that rules the country bears responsibility for stoking trouble in several countries while taking its eyes off problems at home…. Domestically, democracy is a sham with the state being controlled by a grand cleric and his military and political acolytes who suck its vast resources dry to promote a despicable ideology of hatred, while drilling dogmas into young and impressionable minds…. It is hoped ordinary citizens in the country are spared more misery by the regime as protests spread. The world has heard the voices of the Iranian people and is willing to help. But first, Iran’s ruling military and cleric elite would do well to mind its own business and stop beating the drums of war.”

Some have suggested, as this National editorial does, that despite the economic demands being made by the protestors, the wave of discontent across Iran has much more to do with the Iranians’ dissatisfaction with the current regime: “The fractures were there for all to see before the country’s presidential vote last May. Poll data collated from citizens across Iran painted a gloomy picture. Voters were detached and disaffected. They viewed the ballot – in which Mr Rouhani secured a second term – as little more than a charade. Now the indifference has hardened into anger and frustration. The economy is creaking and the president, elected ostensibly on a ticket of fiscal reform, has done nothing to change the narrative for average Iranians…. This is not a clarion call of young people, it is the screaming voice of a nation. The Iranian elite must start to listen.”

Those views are also reflected in this Jordan Times editorial, which points out that after nearly 40 years since the overthrow of the shah’s regime in 1979, the Iranians may be signaling a desire for fundamental change: “To be sure, Iranian demonstrators have a multitude of complaints against the Iranian establishment over other issues as well, but for the time being, high unemployment and rising cost of living appear to be the main bones of contentions for the demonstrators. The underlying factors that led to the many days of widespread demonstrations though could be deeper and include the fatigue with theocratic regime in the country that came to power in April of 1979…. After so many decades of authoritarian rule though, it looks like the people of the country may have wanted a change of direction in their country.”

Writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, Nadav Eyal believes the Iranian protestors are “keeping with revolutionary tradition” and as such it is important to remember that “Iran is a much more open country than Israelis think, and people there are used to protests. They know their parents went out to protest and toppled the corrupt shah and his horrible secret police, SAVAK. They are going out now, continuing the revolutionary tradition…. They are completely undermining the entire Iranian political discourse, which sprawls from President Hassan Rouhani to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s a discourse of religious clerics and their assistants, where there are different shades and a certain flexibility. Seculars, liberals, communists and others can’t take part in this discourse.”

Reflecting on what unites and divides these protests from those of 2009, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is convinced that the Iranian regime is strong enough to weather these protests. However, in his Daily News Egypt op-ed he cautions that Iran’s rulers need to begin listening to their citizens: “To start with, it should not be understood from this analysis that the Iranian regime is crumbling and about to collapse. The truth is that the regime in Tehran is strong in its structures and apparatus, and it represents a strong sector that cannot be easily removed by demonstrations. However, the importance of the current popular dynamic in Iran, which took us by surprise again as it did in 2009, is that it could be a conducive factor leading to partial or total change in the future…. Should the regime weather the crisis and benefit from its lessons, it may survive. However, if it insists on confronting the demonstrators with bullets, and possibly with scapegoats to satisfy the angry crowds, more popular explosions cannot be ruled out in the future.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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