What might have been considered impossible even a decade ago, protesters publicly declaring their discontent and challenging the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, began on Thursday night when Iranians took to the streets in reaction to a dismal economy, rising fuel and food prices, and widespread corruption. Many Iranians are also growing weary of Iran’s attempts to involve itself in several regions like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and recently increased support in Yemen. 21 people have been killed so far and though coverage of the protests by EU countries remains limited, coverage in the U.S. has been steady thanks to statements by U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and tweets by President Trump claiming “The world is watching.”
It might have been possible for the government to contain the growing internal pressure if the lifting of sanctions made life bearable again as it was expected to do. However, though restrictions were lifted in the transportation, financial and energy sectors, hundreds of other entities remained on blacklists. The U.S. also made recent moves to create new sanctions in response to a rocket launch in the summer of 2017. The Iranian public had been largely supportive of the nuclear deal and expected significant economic development as a result. But with the U.S. pulling out of that deal and rising inflation combined with unabated unemployment, the fuse grew shorter. When life did not improve as promised, a large portion of Iranians intensified in their discontent.
As with the 2009 Green Revolution, much of what we know about the protests thus far comes from citizen journalists via social media. What seems to differ from 2009 is the size and scope. Protest numbers are much smaller than the millions who took part in the Green Revolution and the grievances appear to be more about civil rights and a more effective government than full-blown regime change and revolution. That does not mean that Rouhani is safe in his power as protesters were heard chanting “Death to Rouhani” on various videos. Another notable difference from the 2009 protests are the locations chosen and their more religious significance. Rather than centering around Tehran, this week’s protests are happening in places like Qom and Mashhad which are known as devout religious centers. Witnesses recounted the destruction of posters of the Supreme Leader and vocal disapproval of his leadership. This type of public condemnation is unheard of.
Experts tend to agree that these protests are likely to be successfully suppressed without rendering much in the way of short-term impact. The long-term impact remains harder to determine. Senior Fellow Karim Sadjadpour, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace summed it up well in a tweet saying “In 1979, Iranians experienced a revolution without democracy; today they aspire for democracy without a revolution.” Something to keep an eye on is whether or not the protests become more organized over time and if a leadership figure emerges. But even if this round of protests are successfully suppressed, the underlying discontent is likely to remain, and the world should expect to see it rematerialize in the future.
Featured image courtesy of AP