The origins of the protests are economic and represent the unemployed and marginalised
Iran's protests stem from working-class grievance over price hikes and a lack of sanctions relief
In a world that is not short of conflict and crises, attention is now focused on the nationwide protests which have been rattling Iran’s clerical leadership for the past week. The protests have been compared to the last outburst of popular anger in 2009, when mainly middle-class protestors took to the streets of the capital Tehran to challenge the fraudulent victory of the populist candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the presidential election.
Those demonstrations were crushed with brutal force, which allowed the clerical leadership and its security establishment to pursue a ruinous economic policy at home while expanding the country’s influence abroad, from Iraq to Syria.
While the sources of the current wave of protests are still in dispute, what is certain is that they have little in common with the 2009 Tehran uprising.
The most significant difference is that 2009 marked a split in the leadership. The protests were led by the losing presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in the name of his reformist Green Movement. By contrast, today there is no nationwide political leadership; the origins of the protests are economic and organised on behalf of the growing ranks of the unemployed and marginalised and the demands are unfocused.
The protests broke out on Thursday last week in Iran’s second city, Mashhad, a centre of conservative opposition to the president, the reformist Hassan Rouhani, who is implementing an austerity policy, including withdrawal of subsidies to repair the damage of the profligate years of Mr Ahmadinejad. Not surprisingly, the Rouhani camp sees the protests as fomented by the hardliners who want the president to fail.
But Iran is a complex country and the protests quickly spread all over the country. While Mr Rouhani was the initial target, this rapidly changed to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hitherto thought to be almost untouchable, and the Islamic Republic of Iran itself.
Slogans captured on social media posts have ranged from “death to Khamenei” and “death to the dictator” to denunciations of government spending to prop up the Syrian regime and, most surprisingly, support for the old monarchy, swept aside in 1979. Some commentators caution against reading too much into these slogans. The Iranian author Azadeh Moaveni says that “death to…” can mean no more than “please overhaul this whole system”.
The protests have been generally small-scale, with no more than a few hundred people taking part. So far about 20 people have died, as the authorities waver between mollification and responding with an iron fist.
What is clear is that the Iranian working class feels abandoned by Mr Rouhani. He promised that the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief would revive the economy. Nothing of the sort has happened, largely because the Trump administration is stopping international banks from doing business with Iran. Mr Rouhani’s austerity policies may be required by the lower oil price but it is the poor who will suffer and he has not found a way to get his message across to them.
While he is cutting subsidies, Mr Rouhani is also trying to open up murky high-spending institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and various supposedly religious or charitable foundations to public scrutiny. This is a necessary move for any leader determined to clean up the economy but it is hardly risk-free.
In the absence of a proper banking system and amid galloping inflation, many Iranians have put their savings in credit institutions tied to these bodies. For months there have been fears that the investors will never get their money back. There is nothing like losing your savings to make people rail against injustice.
The big question is, as always, will this lead to another revolution? It is worth looking back to the last months of the Shah's rule for some context. In September 1978, he flew by helicopter over the capital, to see about half a million people denouncing him in the streets. To the confused autocrat it seemed as if the whole country was marching against him. But he did not see a popular revolution.
Rather, he thought he had been wrong to blame the Russian-backed communist party for fomenting the uprising. Such huge crowds, he thought, could mean only one thing: the Americans and the British must be behind it.
There are no such huge crowds in the capital these days. The leadership may be divided by different factions which, combined with hostility towards Washington, makes economic progress impossible. But we have yet to see the kind of mental collapse suffered by the Shah. The common thread, however, is blaming foreigners for all the country’s ills.
In his first comments on the crisis, Mr Khamenei also blamed outside forces: “The enemies of Iran are deploying every means at their disposal, including money, arms and political intelligence support, to coordinate making trouble for the Islamic establishment”.
This is a message which historically has gone down well in Iran. In Washington, the desire for regime change in Iran still burns strongly. And Donald Trump is not afraid to add fuel to the fire with his tweets. In his words: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. The US is watching!”
For an Iranian propagandist, this clearly means that the US is behind the protestors. A more sober analysis would point out that the US media have generally been confused in their coverage, lacking a protest leader to focus on. And Mr Trump is often prompted more by a desire to show he is different from his predecessor Barack Obama, who was notoriously cautious in his statements on Iran, than by any clear policy.
At this stage it is useless to predict the outcome of these protests. What the past shows is that the leadership of the Iranian regime has stopped at nothing to maintain the system. In this case, Mr Rouhani, who is not a hardliner, finds himself in the unusual position of being the man to defend the system as a whole.