2018 begins by testing the resolve of Iran’s constitutional-theocracy. A semi-democratic regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it has been a form of governance unique to the Middle East and the world at large. Since the overthrow of the US-backed autocrat, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the majority of the power in Iran rests unilaterally with the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei; from controlling the military to the media, to vetting the presidential candidates that fulfil the democratic element of the constitution.
This monopoly over power was consolidated in the aftermath of popular discontent against Western-backed autocracy. Given its inception, the regime’s politics has been dictated by an acute wariness of Westphalian foreign policy to this day. As such, Iran finds itself involved in a number of regional proxy-conflicts from Syria to Yemen. Due to an economy weakened by sanctions, recent events suggest that the regime is somewhat overstretched to provide for the average Iranian.
Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi remarks that there is a lot of disappointment with the fruitlessness of sanctions relief. She claims the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to relieve the serious financial crisis in Iran is largely down to widespread corruption. With billions of dollars being sent to fund rebel fighters abroad and what remains being inefficiently redistributed domestically, it comes as no surprise that citizens are protesting.
A democratic government is representative and accountable to its electorate; if government expenditure appears to not be in the interest of the population, they are, in the words of President Rouhani, free to express criticism and stage protest. This is a fine line that the Islamic regime has had to walk since its inception; allowing elements of democracy whilst maintaining a firm grip on freedoms that might compromise its legitimacy.
Economic discontent materialised last Thursday when hundreds began protesting in Iran’s second-largest city of Masshad. In the past five days, the protests have spread across multiple cities, including the capital Tehran. Social media blackouts and violent clashes with pro-government forces have had the reverse-intended effect and given momentum to the movement. At least a dozen protestors have already been fatally injured. Anonymous sources within the country report that the situation is more severe than reported on media outlets.
Thus, whilst the Islamic regime has experienced a number of protests in recent decades, observers are already marking these early days out as the start of something unseen since the days of the Islamic Revolution. Whilst similar protests, such as the Green Movement of 2009, have been stopped from fruition by brutal government crackdowns, a number of distinct differences today exist.
The Differences Between Then and Now
Some important differences include; a democratically elected moderate President, a successfully negotiated nuclear deal and sanction-relief programme, and a successful campaign to defend Bashar al-Assad in Syria. On the part of the regime, all cards appear to have been played. It is not possible for a more moderate or reformist president under the current form of governance, the illusion that the JCPOA would alleviate widespread inequality has been dismissed (in reality, the benefits will only be felt by a few people) and Iran’s foreign endeavours, as the protests show, do not reflect the broader interests of its population.
The reality of what the regime can do to appease the popular discontent at this point is limited; other than radical reforms that would still not be felt overnight, democratic options appear to be exhausted. A violent crackdown is also not a desirable option. By exerting violent, repressive methods, it would give a unifying cause to the protest groups throughout the country. The government is at present helped by the said absence of unison. Small groups are less likely to endure a long, peaceful campaign and as soon as protests turn violent, the government can respond in turn and discredit them as foreign-backed opportunistic instigators.
For a country that had such high investor expectations as a revived emerging-market, any large-scale political instability is sure to rock both its own recovering economy and those neighbours that depend on it. The response to these protests will not only be critical in assessing Iran’s stability as a destination for post-sanction FDI but as an indicator of the regime’s future as the younger population – with no memory of the Shah’s autocracy -becomes the majority.
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