The scale and speed of Iran’s crackdown was significant — and different from the reaction to public discontent in 2017 and 2018. Why? Because Tehran is both confident regarding the weakness of its population — strangled through the “maximum pressure” campaign — and less confident of its standing in the region because of ongoing protests in Lebanon and Iraq.
Nervously watching protests elsewhere
Iran’s influence and standing in Lebanon and Iraq is key to its security, and something Tehran has spent years cultivating. The outcome of the protests there will also determine the Islamic Republic’s reaction to protests inside its own borders, because they affect the system’s sense of security and longevity.
The protests that began at the end of October in Iraq and Lebanon stem from legitimate local grievances. The anti-government demonstrations are fueled by anger and the corruption among politicians inside those countries. These protests became increasingly anti-Iran as Tehran’s hand in the corrupt policies of these governments could not be ignored.
The sentiment worsened after Iranian-backed members of Hezbollah tried to disrupt peaceful gatherings in Lebanon and Iranian-backed forces resorted to heavy violence against the protesters in Iraq. Protesters in Iraq burned the Iranian Consulate in Karbala on Nov. 4 and in Najaf — in the Shiite heartland — last week. In Lebanon, Hezbollah supporters clashed with anti-government protesters, forcing the army and riot police to form barriers separating the two groups.
Lebanon is Tehran’s gateway to the Mediterranean Sea, and Hezbollah is an unparalleled ally — a hybrid, armed actor that is loyal to it and gives it reach across the region. Iran’s ties to Hezbollah are a nonnegotiable.
Iraq is a neighbor with which Tehran shares over 900 miles of porous border and has political, religious and economic interests. Iran’s reach in Iraq was well-known and highlighted with the release of cables outlining the depth and range of ties between the two countries last month.
But inside Iran, Tehran’s regional presence is problematic, considered costly and the subject of debate. During previous rounds of discontent, protesters chanted slogans like “No to Palestine, no to Gaza and Lebanon — only Iran is worth dying for.” Islamic Republic officials, however, argue that Iran is too invested in both countries to sit idly by. After all, Iraq is a first-order priority, sitting on Iran’s border. The last time Iran and Iraq were at odds with one another, it led to the devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq War — Iran cannot see a repeat of that.
Lebanon and its relationship with Hezbollah is part of Iran’s regional force projection: a symbol of the Islamic Republic’s reach and success. But its reaction to the protests makes matters worse: Iran’s allies are using force to disrupt protests and its presence is too visible, further increasing anti-Iran sentiment. This makes Tehran nervous, and not willing to take any chances with protests, including inside its own borders.
What protesters in Iran are demanding
While protests have been a regular fixture of the Islamic Republic, those that have occurred in the past few years have been largely fragmented, localized and uncoordinated, and focused on specific socioeconomic demands and groups. In December 2017-January 2018, however, they were widespread: Protests occurred in more than 80 cities throughout the country, focusing at first on economic conditions and evolving into anti-government protests. Recognizing that the usual approach of blaming foreigners would not work this time, the political elites — including the supreme leader — legitimized protester demands and promised reform.
Iranians want change, but they do not want a repeat of what’s happening in Syria, Yemen and Iraq inside their country. They wanted progressive change and reform of the system: more predictable and less volatile than another revolution. But that change is not coming fast enough.
Iranians are facing a dire economy
The 2015 nuclear deal was supposed to open Iran up internationally, paving the way for it to improve economic conditions, which was the bedrock of the Hassan Rouhani administration’s promises. President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign makes that difficult. Oil exports fell 80 percent, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that Iran’s economy will shrink by 9.5 percent this year after its currency fell and annual inflation was forecast at 35.7 percent this year.
Iran’s economy is too big and too diversified to collapse. In fact, it seems to be slowly recovering, with the currency appreciating 40 percent against the dollar, easing inflation and boosting the manufacturing sector. Non-oil exports are rising — forced by sanctions on oil, further diversifying the economy — a benefit in the long run.
But Iranians themselves are weakened, and the middle class — traditionally, the most politically active class — is being further squeezed by the sanctions. In addition, the Trump administration is a useful external enemy, unifying a usually divided government in Tehran. As a result, when faced with protests today, the government felt the threat more acutely but also was more confident in its strength and ability to crack down, given its weakened population. The Trump administration — which provides a platform to groups like the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an exiled Iranian resistance group once listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government and with little support among Iranians, and said it is “pleased” with protests — is a gift to the government in Tehran, which points to these as proof of the foreign plot to unseat it.
While recent protests in Tehran were similar to those in 2017-18, the government reacted more swiftly and more brutally this time. Fearful of the rising anti-Iran sentiment in the region, but bolstered by its weakened population and slowly recovering economy, the government felt the threat more acutely. But it also was more confident in its ability to effectively crack down and quiet the protests. The calculation paid off this time, but it is unlikely work much longer.
Dina Esfandiary is a director at Herminius and a fellow at the Century Foundation.