Iranians have taken to the streets to protest against the government’s decision to raise petrol prices. The move, which Iranian officials have argued was necessary due to the drop in oil exports as a result of U.S. sanctions, has angered Iranians who see fuel prices doubled or tripled depending on the quantities consumed. Coming amidst protests in Iraq and Lebanon, some in the region are wondering whether Iran has the necessary resources to maintain its influence in the region. With economic forecasts for 2020 looking as, if not more, dire than the current one, Iranian leaders may have to turn their attention to their home front in a bid to regain their grip on power.
According to a report by the main Iranian daily Tehran Times, the country’s president Hassan Rouhani has vowed his government will come to the aid of vulnerable segments of the society, while also threatening to take forceful action against violent protestors: “Speaking at the cabinet, Rouhani said, ‘Protest is different from riot. Protest is the people’s right and they can protest. The government accepts even harsh criticism. However, we should not allow insecurity in the society’. He added that the government will allow no one to cause insecurity or attack police stations and the offices of the national TV. Rouhani said that decision to ration gasoline and increase petrol prices was taken in line with helping the lower-income and middle classes of the society.”
President Rouhani’s statement follows similar comments made by other Iranian politicians. Reporting for Press TV, Yusef Jalali suggested that Iran’s parliament is looking for ways to reassert itself after finding itself sidelined by Rouhani’s government: “The Iranian parliament also held an emergency session on Sunday to discuss the issue in detail while criticizing what some called the sidelining of the parliament by not seeking its permission. Iranian lawmakers say same as the protesting people; they were caught off guard by Rouhani’s move. The parliament held an emergency meeting today to bury the hatchet and mitigate the negative effects of the hike in fuel prices. Lawmakers said they will take every measure to prevent the possible domino effect of the fuel price hike on other commodities and services.”
For the Gulf News editorial team, the protests were a natural result of the government’s inept handling of the rise of the oil prices and its violent response to dissent: “Iran is in some serious trouble and it’s all of its own making. Protests swept the country on Saturday after the government’s decision to raise petrol prices.... The nuclear deal seemed to have offered an exit from the country’s financial woes. But the collapse of the deal has only exacerbated those problems.... Iranians want their leaders to be more responsible when it comes to spending and they deserve a leadership that fights for them instead of against them. With the unprecedented pressure it faces both domestically and abroad in Lebanon and Iraq, Iran should be careful going forward and rethink its repression of dissent.”
The violent protests in Iran have also invited further scrutiny from its neighbors, many of whom resent Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Some, like this editorial by The National, have called on the Iranian government to pay more attention to what is happening at home, rather than expanding valuable resources abroad: “Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Its people should be benefiting from its rich resources, but its self-serving government is only interested in helping a tiny elite. Inflation and unemployment are rampant, exacerbated by the US sanctions, but have had little impact on Tehran’s behavior....despite the obvious suffering of its citizens, regime leaders have responded with belligerence by ramping up their nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile programme, continuing to fund non-state actors in other lands and ploughing ahead with their imperialist ambitions to build an arc of power all the way to the Mediterranean.”
Reflecting on the instability in Iran and the broader region, Jerusalem Post’s Maya Carlin asks whether Iran may be losing its footing in the region: “Could uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon, coupled with US sanctions, permanently impair Iran’s influence in the region?... In both Iraq and Lebanon, political factions are divided by religions and sects. These government systems are designed to limit sectarian conflicts by ensuring a sharing of power to different communities. However, in both regions, prominent Shia parties are conjoined with Iran. Since protesters are demanding an end to their government’s power-sharing system, Tehran is in trouble.... While Iran grapples with the economic consequences of Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, it may not be able to survive the coupled onslaught of these protests.”
In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Ghassan Charbel points out that Iran is no stranger to street and violent protests. However, Charbel believes the Iranian people may be running out of patience as the government fails to deliver much-needed services: “It is not the first time that Iranians have taken to the streets to express their anger and disappointment.... But what is new is that Iran is going through the worst economic crisis since the revolution, because of the re-imposition of US sanctions following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. The crisis is worsened by the waning European role, on which Iran was betting to compensate for the American exit. It is clear that the Iranian regime, which refused to understand the messages behind the protests in Iraq and Lebanon, categorically refuses to listen to the demands of the Iranian protesters.... Slogans can no longer convince the average citizens to tighten the belt again and again. They are asking about their right to a better life, their income and retirement.”
And judging from this analysis by Arab News’ Majid Rafizadeh, it looks as if things may only be getting worse, economically and politically, for the Iranian leadership, as the economic forecast for the next year continues to be clouded by a confluence of external and internal factors: “When it comes to economic growth, 2019 has been one of the worst years for Iran’s ruling mullahs since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.... The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and its re-imposition of draconian sanctions, which had been lifted under the Obama administration, began having a real impact this year.... Iran’s economy took a major beating in 2019, and it will most likely continue to deteriorate in 2020 due to the US sanctions, declining oil exports, its currency devaluation, financial corruption, economic mismanagement, and the potential re-imposition of further sanctions, as Iran continues to breach the nuclear agreement.”