Dina Esfandiary is a Fellow in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
The recent spate of protests in Iran has ebbed — at least for the moment. The unrest caught the regime off guard. Initially it responded in the usual manner: by blaming foreigners and discrediting protesters. But in a pragmatic move, the leadership then acknowledged the protesters’ demands. This is new and significant because it signals a willingness to open up in order to stay in power. But doing too little or too much will jeopardize the system.
The protests began over economic hardship, and rapidly spread to more than 80 cities, leading to 1000 arrests and more than 20 deaths. Protests are not new in Iran, with sit-ins and peaceful protests a regular feature, especially since President Hassan Rouhani took office. But these were widespread — they began outside the capital in the conservative city of Mashhad — and communicated bolder slogans, some of which targeted the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself. They also caught the government off guard.
During his election bid, Rouhani outlined an ambitious plan to boost the country’s economy. As part of this, he negotiated the nuclear deal, which was supposed to pull Iran out of isolation, and put in place a team of experienced technocrats to carry out his economic agenda.
In practice, though, it turned out to be a bit more complicated.
First, Rouhani’s bargain with the people and the leadership was to focus on the economy and the nuclear deal at the expense of other domestic issues, such as political and social freedoms. Secondly, as part of selling the deal and ensuring his reelection, his administration raised expectations. They touted the return of foreign business to Iran and the potential for growth. But average Iranians didn’t feel any benefits. Instead, they faced growing inflation and unemployment, experienced growing restrictions on their freedoms and witnessed truckloads of Iranian money being spent outside the country.
Today, the administration is paying the price.
But Iran is pragmatic and survival is its driving principle. When its existence is threatened, the regime adapts. What the government’s response to the protests shows is that they now think they didn’t get that deal quite right.
After initially blaming foreigners and seditionists for instigating the protests, the system changed course. Certain clerics, members of the judiciary and officials began to sympathize with the protesters.
Rouhani made bold statements highlighting the legitimacy of the protests. He dismissed claims that they were only economically driven, and called on the system to heed the people’s demands. Importantly, in a jab at his hard-line opponents, he highlighted the plight of the young: He insisted that the Islamic government would have to adapt to the lifestyles of newer generation, rather than impose that of the older revolutionaries. Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran’s vice president, also weighed in by dismissing foreign intervention in the protests and insisting that the country’s media should be the people’s voice.
Most surprisingly, Khamenei also took on a more conciliatory tone and acknowledged protester demands. He called upon the government to listen and accepted responsibility for the people’s discontent. To be sure, the supreme leader also continued to peddle the usual “blame-the-foreigners” line. But his recognition that there is a problem, and that the system must deal with it, is new.
Acknowledging that protesters had valid reasons to be out on the streets is a significant departure from Iran’s usual response to public displays of discontent. This is partly in response to rumors of the hard-line camp inciting the protests to destabilize the Rouhani government. His administration’s recognition of its failures and acknowledgement of the protesters’ demands undermines the conservatives. But that’s only part of it.
The change in approach is also the product of the regime’s pragmatism. Today’s Iran can no longer exist in the way it has. Iranians are too connected, too aware of life outside their borders, and too tired of the elite’s bickering. Their economic, social and political demands can’t be swept aside. And Iran knows this. It also knows that many of its citizens don’t want to see a change in the whole system, but rather, reform within the system. After all, the last time the government changed, it didn’t improve their lives by much.
For the regime to stay in power, it has to concede to certain demands and evolve with the changes occurring in Iranian society. Today, the Rouhani administration must contend with the demands of the protesters. The first step was to admit his administration’s failures. Now it will mean getting the supreme leader’s approval to forge ahead with reforms that are unpopular with certain segments of the elite, including the Revolutionary Guard. He must do so while fighting the factions that bind his hands on neglected political and social reforms.
But the administration must implement these changes slowly. If Rouhani pushes his agenda too aggressively, it will result in a conservative backlash and another tightening of the reins. This would ultimately make the regime more fragile because of renewed popular discontent. In other words, both too little or too much will have negative consequences.
The protests in Iran are unlikely to change who is in power. But they will spark a change of the system, led by the system. The Islamic Republic has proved its skill at staying in power, and it now recognizes that it needs to adapt to remain. But it will have to tread more carefully than ever before.