Twenty people dead, hundreds injured, over 1,000 imprisoned: The explosion of rage that has swept through Iran in recent days has shaken the Islamic Republic’s élite. Beginning in Meshad on December 28, as a small agitation organised by President Hassan Rouhani’s right-wing opponents, the protests have now spanned cities and towns in all parts of the country. Even though elements of the establishment have characterised the protests as a Western plot, and organised counter-demonstrations, the real reasons for the anger are only too evident. Led, in the main, by young unemployed men below 25, and encompassing sections of the lower middle-class, the protests illustrate the growing hardships ordinary Iranians are encountering. Even though President Rouhani’s austerity-focussed economic policies have propelled GDP growth to 5 per cent, inequality has widened.
Half of the Iranian population stagnates below the poverty line — which, is higher than the official minimum wage the government has resisted raising. Every eighth Iranian, according to official data widely considered to understate the problem, is unemployed; among young people, the ratio is one in four. Economic gains from the lifting of western sanctions have gone mainly to the religious élite and its military allies, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
For much of 2017, signs of a rising tide of anger were present. In May, angry miners attacked President Rouhani’s vehicle as he tried to visit the site of a collapsed shaft. Then, in November, the collapse of shoddily-built public housing in an earthquake provoked widespread outrage. There were protests by middle-class Iranians who had lost their life’s savings in bankrupt financial institutions; by pensioners angered by the fact that the payments were being delayed; by trade unions furious over unpaid wages; by students; by teachers. President Rouhani’s 2017 budget, which gave generous handouts to institutions run by clerics of both the reformist and conservative camps, as well as to the IRGC, dismayed many progressives who had backed his election.
Precisely what kinds of change these protests will lead to is, of course, impossible to predict. Largely leaderless — at least, in the sense of having an organised political structure — the protests appear to lack structure and coherent objectives. Indeed, Iranian reformists, who led protests against former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2009, have largely distanced themselves from the street protests. The establishment’s conservatives, too, have acted in the same way. For this precise reason, though, the protests have true significance: The street rage is directed at both the ideological ends of the cleric-led establishment, thus challenging the foundations of the Islamic Republic. There is little doubt that Iran’s regime has the capacity to quell these protests but barring fundamental reforms that lead both to economic change and a more inclusive political system, it is likely the tide of anger will continue to rise.