Think of the Iranian uprising as a bottom-up revolt by people who feel they’ve been ignored by a corrupt elite. The issues and the faces in the street are very different from those of the populist movements that swept the United States and Europe in 2016, but you sense a resonance: “Make Iran Great Again” and “Iran First.”
This revolt probably won’t topple the Islamic Republic, but it certainly has deepened the fault lines. It shows that Iran’s revolutionary adventures in the Middle East carry a cost at home. And it puts a cocky, belligerent regime on its back foot. For unlike the 2009 Green Movement, this isn’t primarily an urban, elite protest, but something potentially broader. A crackdown could backfire.
“This is a nationwide uprising taking place all over Iran,” argues Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. who has been monitoring the protests since they began. “The government has been taken by surprise, and the security forces have been slow to act.” It’s a revolt of the mostazafin, or dispossessed, Nader says, but also of the urban middle class.
President Trump’s enthusiasm for the protesters has bubbled over in his tweets. Explains a senior administration official: Dissent shows Iran has “deep structural problems” and a corrupt economic system, dominated by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, that is “unsustainable.” The White House sensibly plans to work with allies to hold Iran accountable for any violence against its citizens. The senior official said: “Iran is now encountering the cost of the choices they’ve made. That’s not going away until they make different choices.”
Like most social upheavals, this one was obvious only in hindsight. But there were hints. In April, as moderate President Hassan Rouhani was on his way to reelection, voters clearly wanted economic growth. Asked about their income levels, 54 percent of Iranians surveyed by the Toronto-based IranPoll answered either “I hardly get by” or “It is very difficult to get by.” Last year, Gallup reported that Iran ranked third on its Negative Experience Index, after Iraq and South Sudan.
Partly, this is a revolution of rising expectations. Iranians had hoped that Rouhani and the nuclear deal he championed with the West would bring new investment, jobs and the dynamic, modern life Iranians want. But this hasn’t happened. Frustrated people get angry, and their rage eventually surges into the streets.
The protesters denounce both Rouhani’s reformers and the hard-liners led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They come from Iran’s equivalents of “red states” and “blue states” alike. On videos, you can see protesters taunting two of the regime’s most sacred cows, Khamenei and Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force.
As U.S. officials have tried to reconstruct events of the past week, they see a spontaneous, diffuse movement that ignited like sparks on dry tinder. The first big protest occurred Thursday in the conservative stronghold of Mashhad in eastern Iran. U.S. officials think it was initially organized by Khamenei’s supporters to protest Rouhani’s economic policies, but it quickly spread so that the mullahs, too, became a target.
The next big protest came in Kermanshah, a Kurdish-dominated area along the western border. The region was rocked by a powerful earthquake in November, which killed more than 500 and wounded nearly 10,000, and protesters blamed corrupt building inspectors. Protests then spread to Ahvaz, an Arab-dominated city in the south, to Isfahan in the center and to several dozen other cities.
The people in the streets have defied government intimidation, which had crushed the 2009 revolt. Watch their videos and you can hear the chants that echo across the country: “Death to the dictator,” “Leave Syria, think of us,” “Don’t be afraid, we stand together” and “We’ll die to get Iran back.” One clip shows a female protester calling out the men around her: “What are you waiting for? Be men. Come forward.”
Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summarizes the surprise explosion: “No one anticipated this. It happened in the Islamic Republic’s heartland. It reflects a feeling of utter frustration and despair toward everyone and every part of the system.”
The world is watching. That’s the right message for Trump, and every other leader who cares about Iran’s future. Rouhani may sympathize with this revolt — these are the people who voted for him, after all — but Khamenei will want to crush it. The best gift the United States can give the Iranian people is a digital lifeline, so humanity can witness their brave struggle and encourage them to prevail.