For a week now, Iran has been roiled by unrest. Mass protests, which erupted in the second largest city, Mashhad, over price rise and corruption have since spread geographically to engulf several cities, including the capital, Tehran. The protests have turned anti-government, too, and appear to be opposed to the country's unelected but powerful religious elite. Over a dozen people have lost their lives in violent clashes between protesters and police. Protesters have been hurling stones and engaging in looting and arson, and police are using water cannons and tear gas, even bullets to disperse the demonstrators. Although President Hassan Rouhani has taken a sympathetic approach to the protesters so far - he has said that Iranians have the right to protest - the conservative establishment seems determined to crush them with an iron hand. Hundreds of people have been arrested over the past week and prominent judges are calling for "serious measures," including the death penalty against the rioters. The ongoing protests are not as massive as those that culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Neither are they as focussed as the anti-Ahmadinejad protests of 2009. The present protests seem to lack leadership, too. Still, their implications for Iran could be serious.
Since the 1979 revolution, political power in Iran remains in the grip of conservative clerics. Although elections are held, the system is hardly democratic as the rules of the game are skewed in favour of unelected institutions and radical clerics. Indeed, even when moderate clerics like Mohammad Khatami or Rouhani have been elected to the presidency, it is the conservative establishment that calls the shots. The institution of an all-powerful 'Supreme Leader' has reduced the stature and powers of the elected presidency. President Rouhani must tread carefully now. There is a danger of conservatives in Iran's establishment using the current unrest to crush dissent. This would derail the political and economic reform process Rouhani has initiated. It could lead to denial of the few freedoms that the Iranian people enjoy.
Given the United States' long history of meddling in the internal affairs of Iran, it is not surprising that many in Iran and outside see Washington's hand in inciting and fuelling the current unrest. Slogans supporting Reza Shah, Iran's last monarch and staunch US ally, at rallies have fuelled this perception. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his deep hostility towards Iran. The possibility of the US and Saudi Arabia, Iran's main rival in the region and the Muslim world, getting together to fish in Iran's troubled waters cannot therefore be ruled out. A US-Saudi hand in the ongoing unrest would be disastrous for Iran's nascent reform process.