By Saturday, some activists were calling for regime change. “Death to the dictator” and “Clerics should get lost,” they yelled, according to the New York Times. Others suggested that Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, should “let the country go.” Some even burned a banner with an image of Khamenei.
It was the biggest opposition movement to hit Iran since the Green Revolution of 2009, when millions of Iranians protested the reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Then, just as suddenly, things began to quiet down. Police arrested hundreds of protesters, and access to social-media sites was suspended. The government suggested that foreign powers were behind the protests and promoted loyalist counter-demonstrations.
Reporters on the ground say the protest gatherings have ebbed, and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, apparently agrees. He said Wednesday that “sedition” has ended. “With the help of God,” he said, “their defeat is definite.” Whether that's the truth or simply a warning ahead of a tougher crackdown is hard to say.
None of that, however, means the country's anger has been soothed. The protests could be the beginning of a longer period of unrest, one that could destabilize both the country's elected government and its theocratic leaders.
“The new protests are different from any since the 1979 revolution,” noted Robin Wright in the New Yorker. “They didn’t start in Tehran, the cosmopolitan capital. The genesis was a small demonstration in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city and its holiest site. The city is a bastion of clerical ideologues and political hard-liners.”
Nor are the demonstrators coming from the usual elite and reformist circles. “The activists appear to be largely the working classes and the young,” Wright wrote. So far, 90 percent of the arrests are youths under 25, the deputy interior minister, Hossein Zolfaghari, announced on Tuesday.”
Many of the young people who showed up were angry about their lot. Unemployment in Iran is about 12.7 percent, and the cost of basic goods jumped 40 percent in 2017. Some items, like eggs, even became more expensive out of terrible luck: A bird flu outbreak caused the country to kill 17 million chickens, which led to huge hikes in egg prices.
You can add envy to the economic problems as well. “A lot of the kids in the smaller cities have gotten a taste for a better life through social media,” Mojtaba, a 33-year-old in Tehran, told CNN. “They look at what they see on Instagram or Telegram and compare that to their prospects, and naturally they get angry.”
But Iran's government probably cannot do much to change the realities. As Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, told NPR, “the regime is strategically weak.” It faces several near-intractable challenges, including a drop in oil prices, severe water shortages, chronic double-digit inflation, rampant unemployment and corruption.
Iran's leaders hoped the nuclear deal would kick-start the country's bedraggled economy, but that has not worked in practice. After years of sanctions, the country's oil industry atrophied. It needs serious investments to improve, which would cost money that Iranian businesses do not have. Foreign companies are interested in working on Iran's oil fields but find it hard to navigate the country's arduous regulations.
“Without higher income from its energy industry and better jobs for its population, Iran has been unable to significantly improve its economy,” Ellen R. Wald wrote for Forbes.
There is also the challenge of unmet expectations. “People's expectations were raised by the nuclear deal, but the quality of life hasn't materially improved,” Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview with Isaac Chotiner of Slate. That general dissatisfaction meant that protests rapidly turned from inflation or egg prices to broader complaints about the system that has allowed the economy to stall and corruption to flourish. Ultimately, it is calling the whole idea of an Islamic republic into question.
“It’s the maximalism in terms of slogans that’s so surprising,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told Vox. “This is not a movement that’s pulling punches.”
In Washington, President Trump seems to be following the unrest closely. He has tweeted support for the protesters several times, using the unrest to attack the “brutal and corrupt” Iranian government. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador the United Nations, has called for an emergency meeting of the organization's Human Rights Council — a body the administration has harshly criticized.
But even as Trump voices support for the Iranian people, their actions might lead him down a counterproductive path. In two weeks, he could kill the nuclear deal by deciding to reimpose sanctions on Tehran. “He’s not going to want to waive sanctions and keep money flowing to dictators when there are people protesting in the streets,” Richard Goldberg, a former Senate Republican aide who participated in designing sanctions against Iran, told Politico.
Doing so would almost certainly make things in Iran worse, not better. Destabilizing the deal would make it harder to convince foreign companies to invest in Iran. Fresh sanctions would restrict the economy further and certainly do nothing to materially improve the lives of ordinary Iranians. And it would give Iranian leaders an easy scapegoat for their people's poverty.
In the meantime, though, the government must weather the anger of its citizens alone. And unless it can address the deep and widespread dissatisfaction among Iranians, it should probably be worried — no matter how long the protests last.
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