Working-class protests present unique challenge to Iranian regime

Working-class protests present unique challenge to Iranian regime
© Getty Images

A budget allocating billions to the military, the existence of murky clerical bodies and a sudden jump in the price of eggs — these are among the catalysts for the largest anti-government demonstrations in Iran since 2009, when millions took the streets to protest the fraud-riddled re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The latest demonstrations are far less organized and seemingly leaderless but in some ways represent a deeper challenge to the cleric-led government that has ruled Iran since 1979. For the first time, the regime’s base — the working class and poor — are rising up. 


The demonstrations began Dec. 28 in Mashhad, a conservative city known for the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth imam, or spiritual leader, of Shiite Muslims. There have been credible reports that political opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani instigated these initial, small-scale protests as a way of scoring points.


Ironically, Rouhani’s own leak of the annual budget — dedicating billions to clerical institutions and the military while cutting cash subsidies for the poor — also appears to have been a major factor in provoking popular rage. So was a sudden 40-percent jump in the price of eggs caused by an outbreak of avian flu. 

As videos of the Mashhad demonstrations spread rapidly through social media and messaging apps, Iranians took to the streets in dozens of provincial cities and towns. Economic slogans morphed into political ones, some even calling for the downfall of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Unlike 2009, when the regime cracked down brutally on the protestors, authorities have been relatively restrained. Rouhani has underlined the right of people to demonstrate peacefully, drawing the line at violence against persons and property.

However, as the protests continued into a second week, the government dispatched members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to three provinces to put down unrests. As of this writing, several hundred people have been arrested and more than 20 have died. 

On Wednesday, the regime mobilized government workers and students for counter-demonstrations. But the bigger challenge to the government is whether it has the capacity to reform and reallocate funds away from major constituencies within the system, including religious foundations and the military.

These tasks will be made harder in an atmosphere of unrelenting hostility from the United States and threats by President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE to withdraw from a landmark nuclear agreement.

Iran’s economy is expected to grow by 4 percent this year after similar growth in the last two years. But Iranians, especially in the provinces, have not experienced much benefit.

Most of the growth is due to the resumption of oil exports that had been reduced by sanctions prior to Iran signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. Those revenues have not trickled down. Inflation is creeping up again and unemployment is stubbornly high, particular for the young.

Iranian officials had hoped for a massive influx of foreign investment after the nuclear deal, but that has not materialized. This is due in part to Iran’s own considerable structural problems and in part to the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies toward the country.

European businesses, such as the French oil giant Total, which had been contemplating big contracts with Iran, have been furiously backpedaling since Trump’s inauguration.

President Trump, who last October said the Iran deal was no longer in U.S. national security interests even though Iran has been abiding by its terms, faces a deadline in mid-January to waive U.S. nuclear-related sanctions again.

If he does not, expect foreign investors to become even more skittish and for the Iranian currency to fall further against the dollar, fueling more inflation.

Since the protests erupted, Trump has evinced concern for the plight of ordinary Iranians. But a year ago, shortly after taking office, he demonstrated the opposite when he banned all Iranians from entering the United States along with citizens of several other Muslim-majority nations.

That executive order, which has gone through several permutations and court challenges, earned him the justifiable enmity of Iranians everywhere and made his current expressions of sympathy suspect in their eyes. 

Responding in part to Trump, Ayatollah Khamenei has blamed the demonstrations on Iran’s external enemies. There is no doubt that agents of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and others opposed to the Iranian regime are relishing the current disturbances and perhaps trying to stoke them through a variety of means.

But Khamenei, who has ruled Iran since 1989, surely knows that the grievances behind the protests are indigenous and genuine. Now the question is whether he will empower Rouhani and the parliament to enact serious reforms.

Americans should wish Iranians well, encourage their government to respect human rights and not pretend that the U.S. has the power to determine Iranians’ future.

Given the disastrous record of U.S. intervention in the Middle East — from the 1953 overthrow of a popular Iranian prime minister to the 2003 toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — a little humility would be in order, if unlikely, from the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council and is the author of “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” The views expressed here are her own.