U.S. President Donald Trump has said that his campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran isn’t aimed at precipitating regime change there. That hasn’t stopped him and his aides from telegraphing their hopes for it. So it was when protests erupted in Iran over news that government forces had mistakenly shot down a passenger jet, killing the 176 people on board. The demonstrations tapped into a vein of popular frustration with Iran’s rulers that fed earlier protests in November. Taken together, the unrest has been the most widespread and violent since the Islamic revolution that brought a cleric-led government to power in Iran in 1979. That doesn’t mean the establishment is about to be swept aside. A robust security apparatus retains a strong grip on the country and protects the current system. But demands for change are growing louder.

1. What provoked the latest protests?

Iranians were shocked by the government’s delayed admission that its premier military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had shot down a Ukrainian airliner shortly after it took off from Tehran Jan. 8. The Revolutionary Guard, which led a strike on U.S. bases in Iraq hours earlier to avenge the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, said it had mistaken the aircraft for a cruise missile. The public’s anger was fed by the incompetence of the incident -- from a security establishment that constantly boasts of its prowess -- and by what looked like a coordinated effort to hide the state’s culpability for days. A large number of those on board the flight were university graduates, many pursuing further study abroad. Iran’s massive student population spearheaded demonstrations that featured chants against the regime, specifically the Revolutionary Guard.

2. What were the November protests about?

They were sparked by a sharp and sudden increase in the price of gasoline ordered by the government, which subsidizes the fuel. Iranians were already feeling pinched by the effects of U.S. sanctions, imposed in an effort to force Iran to renegotiate a 2015 multilateral agreement limiting its nuclear program that Trump argues is inadequate. The U.S. strategy to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero has forced the country to rely on one of the most frugal budgets in its history and has plunged the economy into a slump. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that gross domestic product will shrink 9.5% in 2020. Rising prices have eaten away at incomes and led to shortages of some imports, including medicines. Within two days of the gas hikes, protests had erupted in scores of cities around Iran and hundreds of banks had been set on fire.

3. How’s the regime responded to the protests?

The default reaction of Iran’s police and security forces is to disperse unapproved gatherings. When political protests are vocal and participant numbers start to swell, anti-riot police are normally deployed quickly to attack crowds with batons and fire tear gas. In November, security forces responded with deadly force. Video footage showed snipers shooting at unarmed people from a distance, often from the rooftops of state-owned buildings. The human rights group Amnesty International said at least 304 people were killed. Some of their relatives have been jailed for criticizing the state. Authorities took the unprecedented measure of enforcing a near-complete internet blackout that lasted days. Security forces also clashed with those protesting the state’s role in the jet disaster. Unverified video footage showed them using live-round ammunition to disperse crowds in Tehran.

4. What happened in previous protests?

Iranians took to the streets starting in late 2017 to express frustration with economic insecurity in protests that expanded to include opposition to the regime. Before that, the biggest domestic challenge to the government came from the so-called Green Movement, sparked in 2009 by allegations of fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Demonstrations focused largely on political issues and attracted millions of middle-class Iranians. The state reacted swiftly to quash dissent in both sets of protests, with tens killed, hundreds arrested and web access significantly slowed down. In the oil-rich, southwestern province of Khuzestan, which has a large population of Arabs, a minority in mostly Persian Iran, protests against corruption and poverty are common, prompting a crackdown by security forces.

5. What’s the state of the opposition in Iran?

There is no legitimate, organized opposition inside Iran. People criticize the leadership among themselves, but such views are rarely reflected in the country’s tightly regulated media. The only political factions that can function are those that support the core values of the Islamic Republic. Iranian politicians fall roughly into three categories: ultra-conservatives such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, moderate conservatives like President Hassan Rouhani and reformists. The reformists believe that the political system should be open to improvement, but their popularity and influence has declined since the U.S. abandoned the nuclear deal and began reimposing old sanctions and adding new ones on Iran. Reformists championed the accord, as did Rouhani, whose credibility has also suffered.

6. What about groups outside Iran?

The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian resistance group based originally in Iraq and now in Albania, is the most active of these. It is widely hated inside Iran for siding with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. until 2012. Some exiled Iranians want to put Reza Pahlavi, the U.S.-based son of Iran’s last monarch or shah, who was deposed in the 1979 revolution, on a restored throne. His 40-year absence from the country and lack of experience in public office have drawn ridicule from many resident Iranians. In general, Iranians are highly suspicious of interference from outside the country, a legacy of U.S. backing for a 1953 coup that ousted Iran’s nationalist prime minister and re-installed the shah, who was sympathetic to the West.

To contact the reporter on this story: Golnar Motevalli in London at gmotevalli@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Riad Hamade at rhamade@bloomberg.net, Lisa Beyer, Mark Williams

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