Protests and demonstrations took place in some 100 cities and towns in Iran, an astonishing development that comes on the heels of mass protests elsewhere in the Middle East. At least 100 banks and 57 shops were set on fire, and about 1,000 people were arrested, noted the semiofficial Fars News Agency. Despite the clampdown on social media, videos circulated of protesters chanting angry slogans at the regime, setting fire to tires and abandoning their vehicles on highways to block roads.
Clashes with security forces and pro-regime militias led to at least 12 deaths, though local activists indicated that number is probably closer to 40. On state television on Sunday, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described those who engaged in violent demonstrations as “thugs” backed by Iran’s foreign enemies. On Monday, a statement from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, a dominant paramilitary organization that controls swaths of the state, said that continued disturbances would be met by “decisive” action, a grim warning of a potentially more brutal crackdown to come.
President Hassan Rouhani, backed by Khamenei, argued that the sudden cuts in subsidies were necessary to raise funds to redistribute to the country’s most needy. But that’s cold comfort to millions of Iranians straining under skyrocketing food prices and for whom cheap gasoline has long been considered virtually a birthright.
“Iran’s currency has plummeted in recent years, and Iranians have watched their budgets shrink and savings evaporate amid widespread corruption and government waste,” reported The Post’s Erin Cunningham. “Similar changes to government subsidies set off a wave of unrest in December 2017, when more than two dozen people were killed in protests nationwide.”
But there’s a sharp difference between the protests in late 2017 and early 2019 and what we’re seeing now. That earlier round had been first instigated by a hard-line faction linked to the Revolutionary Guard that hoped to destabilize Rouhani’s rule, noted Alex Vatanka, an Iran scholar at the Middle East Institute.
“It took days for the instigators to realize they had unleashed popular anger that they could not control and that would target the entire regime,” Vatanka wrote in an emailed memo. “This time, no regime faction appears to have instigated the protests, and by most accounts they seem to have been spontaneous … Khamenei and the regime as a whole have been the primary target from the very beginning.”
The stiff response from the regime, argued The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, betrays the palpable fear probably being felt within the halls of power in Tehran. Still, the authorities may have done enough to suppress this new spasm of dissent, with state media describing the situation by Monday as “calmer.”
“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,” wrote Rezaian. “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.”
Iran’s leadership isn’t just facing a backlash within its own borders. In neighboring Iraq, weeks of mass protests against an unpopular government have taken on an anti-Iranian dimension, with ordinary Iraqis incensed by the extent to which Iranian interests have co-opted the Iraqi state. That reality was laid out in remarkable detail in a piece jointly published by the Intercept and the New York Times that’s based on a cache of some 700 clandestine Iranian intelligence cables obtained by the former.
The leak reveals “Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life,” noted the Intercept and the Times. That’s a legacy, they contend, of the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was followed by a lack of American strategic planning that paved the way for the rise of Iran as a “power player” in Iraq.
But Iran’s own strategy seems in crisis now. Hundreds of Iraqi protesters have been gunned down by security forces, including militias viewed as Iranian proxies. Especially in Iraq’s majority-Shiite south, there’s been a vehement rejection of the Iranian hand in Iraqi affairs. “Across the south, Iranian-backed Iraqi political parties are seeing their headquarters burned and their leading operatives assassinated, an indication that Iran may have underestimated the Iraqi desire for independence not just from the United States, but also from its neighbor,” wrote the Intercept and the Times.