Since Thursday, Iran has been facing the largest protests in nearly a decade. The demonstrations started in response to a surge in fuel and food prices in the country, as well as unemployment and inflation.
At least 20 people have reportedly been killed during the protests.
Although the recent tide of protests could not reach the previous tide in 2009, it points out to the collapse of hopes fostered by the Rouhani administration particularly following the nuclear agreement signed in 2013 amid escalating economic problems due to neoliberal policies. Anticipating an "Iran Spring", the triple alliance of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia may force an "Iran Winter" in an attempt to implement a Syria scenario in Iran.
1) Where and how did the demonstrations start?
The demonstrations that started in the conservative city Mashhad on December 28th and spread to almost all other districts of Iran were, in fact, a continuation of smaller scale protests that had been taking place for a while. Following the bankruptcy one after the other of the "Cooperative companies" owned by mainly "conservative sectors" of society, Iranians who have lost money after investing in these companies, were trying to raise their voice for a while especially in the capital Tehran. These institutions that were founded as part of the privatization of the economy in the 90's were in a sense functioning as a type of "small-scale" banks and were reminiscent of the "bankers" that emerged in the 80's in Turkey. Despite the Iranian parliament decision in 2007 to subject these institutions to inspection by the Central Bank and other banking regulations, this decision was not implemented. People who lost money in these "cooperatives" are pointing to the fact that the Parliament decision was not implemented and that the state should reimburse them for their losses. However, the government does not have enough resources for such reimbursement.
2) Were the demonstrations spontaneous?
The demonstrations in Mashhad quickly turned into a reaction against President Hassan Rouhani. At that point, the government and the state media implied that the demonstrators were linked to the presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi who had lost the presidential elections in May 2017. It was also claimed that slogans such as "Death to Hassan Rouhani", "We don't want English mullahs" that were heard on the second day of the protests belonged to the supporters of the former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Eshaq Jahangiri, the Vice President of Rouhani issued a warning that said "Those who are protesting against the government should know that the smoke from their actions will go into their own eyes." In the meantime, Raisi denied claims of his link to the demonstrations. The reality at this point is that; however the demonstrations have started, they are at a scale now that cannot be described as "behind the stage games by the conservative opposition against Rouhani".
3) How are the demonstrations different than the ones in 2009?
Following Ahmedinejad's electoral victory in 2009, the "moderate" wing claimed fraud in the elections and in a short time demonstrations that had started as a reaction to Ahmedinejad turned into "anti-regime" actions. As these actions united on a common denominator, they had gained the support of middle-income urban workers. However, the last actions are way behind 2009 in numbers. For example, in the capital Tehran home to 16 million and the engine behind 2009 demos, only around 500 people participated in the recent actions. The number in Tehran University, one of the main forces behind 2009 was at most 100 people. The difference in the objectives of the demos is the reason behind the difference in participation numbers as well... This also means the expectations for the recent demos uniting against the Iranian government and trigger a sort of "Iranian Spring" are in vain. The actions of the last 6 days have been organized by a variety of groups with different slogans, action tactics and objectives.
4) What are the demands and slogans of the demonstrators?
In cities like Esfahan, slogans against the religious leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and for Shah Pahlavi whose rule ended with the Islamic revolution are prevalent. In Ahvaz where there is an Arab majority, the slogans salute Saudi King Salman who is targeting Iran. In regions with the Kurdish majority, Iranian flags are being burnt. In the demonstrations protesting the economic destruction and attended by the majority, the prevalent mood is not an "anti-establishment" one but a reaction against the government policies. While some actions go so far as to burn down government buildings, most of the actions are peaceful. Iranian media and authorities state that "anti-regime" motives in the demonstrations are only marginal but are intentionally pushed forward in the social media. They claim that these social media manipulations are instrumented by Saudi Arabia and Israel. As of December 31, 2017, of the 72,000 tweets that called for action on the streets, 27 thousand of them originated in Saudi Arabia. Only 26% of the tweets of the same nature originated in Iran. In addition to the actions by the separatist groups, the reaction against government policies is the dominant mood in the demonstrations. With an inflation of 10.5%, a tiny budget increase of 6% by Rouhani government drew reaction by the public as it was taken as a sign of future cuts in social services. The news of rate increases in various taxes also drew some of the Iranians to the streets.
5) Has the Rouhani model collapsed?
The framework of Rouhani's formula that got him to the government can be found in his book "National Security and Economics System in Iran" he wrote in 2010. In that book, Rouhani put forth the thesis that friendly international relations would pave the way to economic development and that would subsequently bring stability and security for the country. The similarity between the solution put forth for Iran's economy in Rouhani's book and IMF's economic programs, in general, is striking. In agreement with some of the IMF formulas such as "Public spending increases inflation" that have already been proven wrong, Rouhani connected the cause of the high inflation in Iran to the high level of public spending. According to Rouhani, the labour laws in effect were overly protectionist, putting a brake on free market development and economy should be left to the private sector and the minimum wage laws should be relaxed in order to boost the private sector.
During Ahmedinejad period, as the economy plunged into crisis due to severe international sanctions, Rouhani's formula that relied on "integration into the global system via reconciliation on the nuclear front and the growth based on private sector and acceleration of neo-liberal transformation" found many sympathizers.
However, Rouhani's thesis was in conflict with the fact that all of Iran's progress in industrialization and infrastructure following 1979 was led by the state. While Iran's national income level increased during Rouhani's rule, this was mostly accomplished by the collection of oil revenues. In fact, the unemployment rate which was 10.4% in 2013 reached 12.4% today. The unemployment rate among youth is much higher at 31%... This is further proof that the economic growth was based on oil revenues and not a real growth.
During Rouhani's period, other than the health sector, all public spending was curbed. The public housing project that provided 4.4 million poor Iranians housing were halted by Rouhani despite the project's success. Despite all these public spending cuts, the trend for the decline in the inflation rate that started in 2013 reversed in 2017 and with a 1.5% increase, reached 10.5%.
Even if the demonstrations quite down in Iran, the current economic situation and the discontent among a wide stratum of the working class point to the possibility of future mobilisations.
6) Is the nuclear agreement a success story?
Rouhani presented the nuclear agreement in 2013 signed with the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany as a success story. Following this, the international sanctions were lifted and Iran was able to cash in the revenue generated by its oil exports. Despite Iran's concessions on the nuclear program, reducing its uranium enrichment levels to 5% from 20%, the US president of the time, Barack Obama did not lift the unilateral sanctions and his successor Trump further increased them. Rouhani was expecting that these conflicts would be resolved with Iran's further integration into the world capitalist system. Iran is now increasing its concessions towards France, the UK and Germany in an effort to alleviate the aggressive policies of the US. One of these concessions, the reduction in import taxes, is undermining the real production in Iran.
7) Are the demonstrations a reaction to Iran's foreign policies?
As the demonstrations started, the US president Donald Trump, who has been reserving a good portion of his tweeting activities to Iran, is trying to portray these demonstrations as a popular reaction to the foreign policies pursued by the Iran government. A similar claim is put forth by the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu who expressed support for the protesters in Iran with a video he published on Facebook. According to Trump and Netanyahu, Iran, a rich country, is using its resources to pursue its expansionist policies in the region as opposed to using them for the benefit of her own people. This claim is, of course, compatible with some of the "measures" against Iran the U.S. and Israel had agreed on shortly before the demonstrations started. The U.S. and Israel had agreed on implementing some common measures in the intelligence area with the aim of kicking Iran out of Syria.
That the posters of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Quds Forces, in a sense the symbol of Iran's Middle Eastern policies, were torn down and the slogan "Neither Gazza, nor Lebanon, we are for Iran" was shouted in certain actions may appear to support Trump's claims but it is very questionable how much these protesters really represent the viewpoint of the Iranian people. According to a 2016 research conducted in the University of Maryland, U.S., a large majority of the people of Iran support their government's Middle Eastern policies. According to this study, 85% of the Iranians view Iran's military engagement against ISIS positively and 65% support Iran's military intervention in Syria. The most striking result of the research is that 85% of the people support Qasem Soleimani and they view him as the "most trustworthy Iranian statesman".
8) Can an "Iranian Spring" succeed?
In the demonstrations, so far 14 people have died and according to the Iranian government, 6 of those are policemen. Iranian interior ministry stated that the security forces have not used firearms and only provocateurs who want to stir up trouble in Iran have used weapons. Following the experience of 2009 events, many Iranian authorities, starting with the President Rouhani have rejected the portrayal of all demonstrators as the agents of foreign forces and that they have made statements in support of people's rights to protest.
The U.S, Israel and Saudi Arabia alliance, on the other hand, are openly stating that they are hoping that the demonstrations in Iran bring about a "regime change". Lastly, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu openly expressed his hopes by saying "If the Iranians manage to overthrow the regime, a friendship between Iran and Israel can be established". U.S. President Trump also called for a "regime change" from his twitter account. It is highly likely that these types of messages attempting to sway the public opinion in Iran against the government will actually backfire.
9) Is this another "Syria scenario" in Iran?
As it becomes clear that the demonstrations will not bring forth the expected "Spring", it is telling to observe the increase in violent actions. The anti-Iran triple alliance has the means to escalate the actions in Iran to a bloody dimension and to attempt to destabilize the country. However, the problem facing the alliance is that it is unlikely that this operational model that did not succeed even in Syria can succeed in Iran. The weaponization of the demonstrations will most likely result in the majority of the people who are on the streets to go back to their homes and the isolation of separatists / anti-government forces facing the security forces.
The plan of the triple alliance (US, Israel, Saudi Arabia) points to a complete departure from the Obama era plan that was also sanctified by the EU and that relied on not pushing Iran outside the system and even certain levels of collaboration in various fields and its full integration to the system over time. In this sense, a possible "Syria model" to be attempted against Iran has way less international support than the one Obama pushed against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. That Russia, which has already been collaborating with Iran in Syria, would support Iran has become clear after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's statement that said "Attempts by certain countries to destabilize Iran is unacceptable". Also, Trump is facing challenges within the U.S. Whether within the U.S. administration or within the media, it is expressed that Trump's anti-Iran policies have no concrete strategy and ignore potential new tensions. The opposition to Trump's plans reminds that Trump's allies Saudi Arabia and Israel have, after Syria, also lost the arm-wrestling in Lebanon and Yemen to Iran.
10) What are the goals of Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?
As it is highly probable that the triple alliance will end up with failure in their Iran plans, this does not change that these countries have some important instruments in Iran.
The removal of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran from the U.S. terrorist list in 2012 is the most important instrument of the plans of "Iran Winter". This organization played role in the Israel-led murder of five scientists working for Iran’s nuclear activities with bomb attacks and poisoning between 2007 and 2012. The Stuxnet virus, a joint U.S./Israel project that targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities, was deployed by a militant of the People’s Mujahedin who had access to Natanz nuclear facility. As the U.S. authorities admitted their role in the Stuxnet attack, they also revealed that the People’s Mujahedin attack on 5 scientists had been organized by Israel. Iran describes this organization as “part of the Saudi plan” while the organization claims its militants’ active participation in recent protests and calls on to “reinforce the fronts” against the Tehran government.
The Islamic State: the People’s Mujahedin is not the only instrument of the triple alliance. The double attack of the IS in Tehran leaving 17 people dead in last June came after Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s words “carrying the war into Iran”. Even the U.S. does not reject Salman’s links to the IS.
The Nizal movement: "We will find ways to reach our brothers there," Mohammad Bin Salman said with reference to the Nizal movement in Ahvaz where there is an Arab majority. Iran argues that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates arm this group through the north of Iran. It is known that Saudi Arabia provided this group with 50 million dollar only in 2015.
Ansar al-Furqan, an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, is active in the province of Sistan-Baluchestan. Supported by the Saudis through Pakistan, this group exploded an oil pipeline during the recent events. Ahvaz is a suitable ground for the discourse of “Arab nationalism against the Persian expansionism” that has been recently expressed by the Saudis so as to establish an anti-Iran regional camp.
The PKK and Barzani-affiliated organizations: the two Kurdish organizations that have armed militants in Iran apparently expressed their wish to be part of this coalition. Conflicts between Barzani-affiliated KDP in Iran and the Iranian security forces have recently escalated. Today, this group engages in clashes with police in cities like Kermanshah. The PKK-affiliated PJAK has also called on taking action in demonstrations. Following the allegations from the PKK-affiliated PYD and YPG that Iran pursed an expansionist policy, the Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan visited Raqqa and Riyadh loosened the purge strings for the reconstruction of the city.
Recently, the Trump administration’s appointment of Michael D'Andrea, nicknamed as 'Ayatullah', as the head of CIA's Iran operations suits to Trump’s perspective in his Middle East Vision, "Regime change in Iran is not expected in the short term. The military option is not on the table. It is necessary to mobilize Iran's internal dynamics": "Ayatullah Mike" who led the assassination of Imad Mugniyah in 2008, the senior leader of Lebanese Hezbollah after Hassan Nasrallah, is one of the most experienced profiles regarding the jihadist groups in the region from Afghanistan to Iran. Ayatullah Mike also led the murder of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader.