Iran protests: how did they start and where are they heading?

10:30 • 04.01.18

The biggest unrest to strike the country in almost a decade began less than a week ago and has spread rapidly

How did the protests start?

A relatively small protest on 28 December, in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, began a wave of seemingly spontaneous demonstrations that have spread across the country. Officials close to the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, have blamed supporters of his rival, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who has his base in the city, for starting the protests. Initial chants of “death to Rouhani” soon gave way to harsher slogans targeting the foundations of the Islamic republic, such as “death to the dictator”, in reference to the country’s Raisi-allied supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


Iran's enemies to blame for unrest, says supreme leader, as death toll rises

Who is protesting?

The protests, stronger in the provinces than Tehran, appear dominated by members of the working class under-25s who have suffered the most under Iran’s sluggish economy.

Observers say the partial lifting of sanctions that followed Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the west delivered uneven economic benefits to the country. “Middle class fortunes have improved somewhat following the nuclear deal … On the contrary, members of the working class … [have been] very vulnerable,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of the Europe-Iran business forum.


What are they calling for and who do they blame?

While the protests may have begun over economic grievances, they soon took on a political dimension. Chants have both called on Khamenei to step down and voiced opposition to Iran’s regional policy, including “Let go of Syria, think about us” and “I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon”. Videos posted on social networks show some protesters chanting nostalgic slogans in support of the deposed monarchy and late shah.

The tone of the slogans has troubled many reformists, who are critical of hardliners in the Iranian establishment but do not urge the overthrow of the Islamic republic. Another contributing factor could be that although Rouhani was re-elected in a landslide victory last year, with nearly 25m votes, he then took a conservative path and failed to deliver on promises to change the country. 

How bad is the economy?

Inflation is at 12% – albeit down from 40% at the start of Rouhani’s first term in 2013 – and unemployment is high. Youth unemployment is about 40%, more than 3 million Iranians are jobless and the prices of some basic food items, such as poultry and eggs, have recently soared by almost half. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, this is “despite the promise of Hassan Rouhani that the 2015 nuclear deal would help to create jobs and improve people’s living standards”.

How do the protests compare to what happened in 2009?

The protests are the biggest challenge to Tehran’s leaders since 2009, when the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to months of unrest amid a bloody crackdown. The protests are bigger in the provinces than in 2009, of a scale rarely seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but in Tehran they are so far smaller than the mostly middle class protests of 2009.

Most chants during 2009 featured slogans in support of the opposition leaders under house arrest, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, but in the recent protests their names are seldom heard. 

What do the protests mean for Iran’s reformists?

Reformists, silenced and relatively marginalised for over a decade by hardliners, are puzzled how to react. Most senior figures within the reformist camp have remained mute, troubled by calls for regime change, while a number of reformist commentators have come out asking the ruling system to allow peaceful demonstrations but expressing concerns that the recent protests are becoming too radical. Ironically, the ruling establishment now would need the help of the reformists to contain the growing unrest – but some have been sidelined and others, particularly the younger ones, discouraged by a lack of political reform under Rouhani. 

How has the state handled the protests so far?

In the early days of the protests, the authorities largely held back but as the unrest continued and an intervention from Rouhani failed to calm public anger, security forces have taken on a harsher line. According to latest official figures, at least 21 people have died, including a number of security guards, and since Saturday, at least 450 people have been arrested in Tehran alone. Hundreds more have been arrested in provinces.

Protesters say they have been hit by teargas but in sharp contrast to their handling of previous unrest, authorities have allowed local media to report on the protests, although many still reflect the official line. A limited number of foreign media still operating in Iran are also allowed to

What could happen next? 

It is too soon to say if the protests will continue or peter out as the authorities step up their crackdown. In 2009, months of bloody crackdown ultimately prevailed. As the protesters do not have a leader, many say they lack strategy. Others say Rouhani may capitalise on the unrest and urge the hardliners to open up the political atmosphere, while pessimist reformers think the hardliners have now found a pretext to undermine Rouhani and the moderates, consolidating their power before any vacancy opens for the next supreme leader. 

Are foreign powers meddling?

Iranian authorities have been quick to blame the unrest on foreign powers, accusing Saudi Arabia of direct involvement and claiming Donald Trump’s tweets, which have welcomed the protests, as evidence of enemy involvement. But there is little evidence so far to show that the unrest is being driven from outside, even though Washington and Riyadh have not been shy to say explicitly that they favour regime change and have been doing all at their disposal to purse it. Exiled groups, such as the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, which is not popular inside Iran, and monarchists, have seized upon the moment and welcomed the protests. One of Iran’s most outspoken MPs, Mahmoud Sadeghi, however, said he had urged the interior ministry not to link protests with foreign powers and instead improve the economic situation, open up state television to diverse opinions and lift restrictions.



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