Neither the anger nor the government’s move was fully unexpected. Iran’s economy has taken a hit since President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and renewed U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran has been warily eyeing protests in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, where the political proxies it funds hold power.
Gasoline is highly subsidized in oil-rich Iran; the state sets the price. It remains among the least expensive in the world — now at about 50 cents per gallon after the price increase. Rouhani said the slash in subsidies was needed to free up more money for handouts for impoverished Iranians. However, it didn’t feel like a win for demonstrators, many of whom have struggled to get by since the currency collapsed last year and jobs became even scarcer.
“In a nation where many get by as informal taxi drivers, cheap gasoline is considered a birthright,” the Associated Press reported. “Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. While expected for months, the decision still caught many by surprise and sparked immediate demonstrations overnight.”
Protests initially remained largely peaceful and focused on the economy, according to news reports.
“Saturday morning, the start of the Iranian workweek, saw protesters stop cars on major roadways across the capital, Tehran,” the AP reported. “Peaceful protesters blocked traffic on Tehran’s Imam Ali Highway, calling for police to join them as the season’s first snow fell, according to online videos. A dump truck later dropped bricks on the roadway to cheers.”
By Saturday evening, clashes between riot police and security forces were intensifying, and authorities cut off Internet access.
Protests in 2017 and 2018 were all about the economy, too.
Rouhani is probably not looking for a fight ahead of parliamentary elections in February, which will be a test for his moderate-reformist coalition. So far, one of his signature accomplishments — the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal — has neither held nor brought the economic boom and relief from sanctions that he promised.
But Rouhani — and the regime behind him — has weathered economic protests before.
In late 2017, demonstrations broke out across Iran in the largest challenge to the government in years. They started Dec. 28 in the politically conservative city of Mashhad, spurred by a stunted economy and rising prices for everyday items like eggs, before spiraling into calls for reforms from Iran’s political and religious leaders.
From Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, protests spread to nearly every province. They were notably centered among the working class and in provincial towns and cities outside the capital, populations generally seen as more pro-regime.
The protests didn’t stay centered on rising prices for long. Protesters soon added chants against government corruption and mismanagement. Others questioned why Iran was funding proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza while Iranians themselves faced shortages.
“Iranian protesters chanted ‘Death to the dictator!’ as they tore down posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds absolute authority in Iran,” The Washington Post’s Erin Cunningham reported of one scene on the fourth day of protests. “Public criticism of Khamenei is generally taboo.”
The major protests were crushed, but economic grievances and unrest continued
The leaderless protests ultimately died down within weeks after Rouhani repealed some price hikes — alongside Iran’s heavy-handed security forces intervening.
At least 26 protesters were killed and “nine people arrested in connection with protests died in custody under suspicious circumstances,” according to London-based Amnesty International. Authorities also blocked access to the Internet and popular messaging services such as Telegram, through which people had organized and shared information.
Still, small-scale protests continued throughout the year.
“Despite the regime’s violent response to the initial 2017 and 2018 demonstrations, individuals and coordinated groups of dissidents continued to publicly demand political and social reforms throughout 2018,” CNN reported. “As Iran’s economic crisis deepened, peaceful demonstrations were held during July and August which authorities dispersed by using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons, according to Amnesty.”
In another wave, teachers in Tehran protested for higher wages in October and November of 2018. Twenty-three people were arrested and eight sentenced to prison, according to Amnesty International.
“Over the course of the year, more than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders, including lawyers, women’s rights activists, minority rights activists and trade unionists, were arrested, many arbitrarily,” it said.
Protests have flared and shaped politics before
“Historically, Iranians have always been quick to air their grievances” through protests, said Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council focused on Iran.
In 1979, months of sustained protests led to the ouster of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the creation of the Islamic Republic, which remains in place today. Alongside many political factors, Iran’s revolutionary forces won out in part because of support from Tehran’s main bazaar, and the business and lower- and middle-class communities it contains.
Since then, the Islamic Republic has restricted political freedoms and opposition. The last game-changing political protest movement broke out in 2009, over allegations that hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had rigged elections. During what was known as the Green Movement, dozens were killed by security forces, and the protests ultimately failed: Ahmadinejad served a second term, while the wheels of the state turned to make political protests even harder the next time around.
Now, though, Dagres said there’s been an increase in economic protests in recent years because of mismanagement and corruption, as well as the effect of U.S. sanctions and the more varied avenues people have to share news on social media.
“There are a lot of protests that haven’t made Western headlines over the years,” said Dagres.
The economic pressure on Iranians is indeed a pressure cooker. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by 9.5 percent in 2019 as a result of tighter U.S. sanctions.
Dagres said she was surprised the government had cut subsidies now, given the protests rocking Iraq and Lebanon.
“It seems they are confident that they can keep a lid on any unrest,” she said. If protests continue, she said, she expects to see more repression.