In 2009, the nation experienced months of protests in reaction to widespread allegations of election fraud. Iranians regarded the ballot box as one of the only places where they could voice their frustrations and make their demands heard; they responded violently to the notion that the regime was encroaching on this last avenue for self-expression.
This latest bout of unrest — which builds on a series of primarily economic protests two years ago — appears to be broader, deeper and geographically more widespread.
During the protests in 2009, the main slogan was “Where is my vote?” This time we’re hearing loud chants of “Death to Khamenei.” That tells you all you need to know about the evolution of discontent.
This isn’t just my interpretation of the situation; the regime is making abundantly clear how nervous it is. On Sunday, authorities shut down the public’s access to the Internet and security officers shot protesters.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly greenlit the suppression when he tweeted, “The officials responsible for maintaining security should carry out their responsibilities,” signaling permission to put down the protests by any means necessary.
Today, people are coming out again. Despite the Internet blackout, protests are raging on in more than 100 Iranian cities big and small.
Predictably, Khamenei pinned responsibility for the uprising on foreign-based forces meddling in Iranian affairs. He blamed the discontent on the family of the former shah, the reviled armed opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq and the U.S. government.
Needless to say, all of these claims are highly dubious and can be dismissed as attempts to distract attention from the regime’s own failures. The regime’s draconian response shows that the leaders of the Islamic republic are more afraid of the people they rule over than any external adversaries.
What has authorities most concerned this time around is the widely shared sentiment among protesters that Iranians are close to hitting a bottom and can no longer put up with the many pressures — social and economic — they have been forced to bear.
That sense of desperation is becoming more urgent. Domestic mismanagement, corruption and sanctions have left the economy in terrible shape. The spending power of Iranians is a fraction of what it was in 2009, and this latest hike at the pump has only made things worse.
The current protests started in response to a specific and unpopular economic decision, but they have evolved quickly into calls for the end of the ruling system.
The eruptions are an objection to the regime’s inability to manage a financial crisis that Iranians believe is of its own creation. Raising gasoline prices without warning was simply the last straw.
In the past, a relatively high standard of living enjoyed by Iranians kept them off the street. But authorities no longer have anything to offer to incentivize silence.
That the Iranian regime thought it could weather the situation without experiencing significant blowback is a sign of its own hubris. Leaders in Tehran are banking that the Iranian people can and will put up with more hardship. Why wouldn’t they? That has always proved true in the past.
Now we will see to what lengths the regime is willing to go to maintain control.
For years, Iranians have opined that if its power were truly tested, the current Iranian state would respond to domestic dissent with force more brutal than that used by Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak or even Bashar al-Assad.
That hypothesis has never been tested, because protests have never gone that far, because until now Iranians were apparently not that desperate for change nor emboldened to try to attain it. Is that different now? Perhaps.
If this round of protests continues, it won’t likely end in the downfall of the regime. But that’s not the point.
Many Iranians have been dissatisfied with the country’s leadership for years. But now disparate parts of the society are uniting in their anger at the system. That trend will only grow.
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