Massive counter-demonstrations and a crackdown on dissent appear to have quelled or contained demonstrations that erupted in Irans provincial cities and towns on December 28. The protests were sparked by a demonstration organised by conservative clerics in the religious city of Mashhad against rising prices and unemployment.
The aim of the protesters was to capitalise on the popular resentment against reformist President Hassan Rouhani who has failed to deliver on pledges to improve the lives of farmers and workers particularly since expectations were raised by the easing of sanctions after the deal to scale down Irans nuclear programme was signed in 2015.
While Rouhanis policies have cut inflation and raised growth from minus 5% to plus 6%, benefits have not trickled down to the poor. His 2018 budget raises fuel prices and cuts subsidies on food while increasing funds for the military and wealthy clerical institutions. Rouhani should have tackled corruption, broken up commercial and manufacturing monopolies held by the military and high ranking clerics, and redistributed wealth.
The hardline clerics miscalculated. Rouhanis Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri warned the instigators of the Mashhad protests they "should know that the smoke from their actions will go into their own eyes. When street movements begin, others will ride [them] and those who start [them] will not end [them]."
Indeed, protesters not only focused on Rouhanis failings but also called for an end to rampant corruption and, in some places, radicals demanded the overthrow of the clerical regime and the ouster of the "dictator," supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a proposition regarded as treasonous.
Although economic woes have been the main cause of the protests, those taking part have also been motivated by anger over graft, social repression, deepening inequality and costly Iranian involvement in the wars in Syria and Iraq.
The latest protests are, however, not seen as a challenge to the regime as were the 2009-10 demonstrations against the re-election of ultra-hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a fraudulent poll. Then protests were led by the well-organised Green Movement which supported Mir Hussein Mousavi for the presidency.
Protesters were largely students and educated professionals from the middle and upper classes who sought the liberalisation of social life and the economy as well as democracy and greater freedom. At that time, millions
of Iranians turned out in Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz, Irans major cities, to demand Ahmadinejad stand down. The Green Movement did not call for an end to the Islamic Republic or the removal of Khamenei. More than 4,000 were arrested and between 36-72 were killed as the international community roared its opposition to the regime.
The 2017-18 protests have no identifiable national leaders, little organisation and rallies have not attracted large-scale support in the countrys main cities. In Tehran, students have found they have little popular support when streaming into the streets.
Most protests have been in provincial cities and towns where participants are largely from the unemployed working class and where hundreds rather than tens of thousands come out at night to voice the concerns of the millions of provincials who are angry over years of neglect and a lack of investment in basic services, roads, and schools.
Fearing repression, the alienated millions stay at home. The vast majority taking part are youngsters who have no stake in the regime and no individual, group or party they can rely on to solve their problems. Some have taken up weapons or torched public buildings; violence was repudiated by the Greens.
The Green Movement has not been involved or mentioned; no one has called for the release of its leaders, some of whom are still under house arrest. Protesters are from a different generation and have moved on.
While there have been hundreds of arrests and over 20 fatalities, Rouhani, fearing a harsh crackdown could launch large-scale demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities, has taken the view that Iranians can protest peacefully. But, determined to avoid intervention by foreign elements and the injection of weapons of war, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia have been deployed to hot areas.
The military, which has been involved in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, is certain to recognise similarities between the latest protests in Iran and the demonstrations that ignited full-scale war in Syria during 2011. Iran, like Syria, has suffered from years of drought forcing the migration of peasants into towns and cities where they have formed a resentful, unemployed urban underclass.
In Syria, youths from this level of society took up arms against the government at the instigation of expatriate opponents of the regime and external powers eager to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Irans Guards are not going to allow this to happen.
If Rouhani seizes the moment, he could exploit current provincial resentments as well as dissatisfaction among educated Iranians seeking liberalisation and democracy to corner autocratic clerical conservatives who have obstructed reforms not only during his presidency but also during the presidential terms of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami. Rouhani could become the man to break the disastrous grip of the conservative clerics on Iran.