By Selim Celal
The Turkey-based writer is an expert on Iran’s foreign policy and domestic politics.
Last week, a new wave of popular uprising hit the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is not the first time that Iranian streets are witnessing a mass protest of this scale. The theocratic system of Iran, where a clerical class rules over the country in an authoritarian manner, has faced a serious legitimacy problem for the last couple of decades. As a result, Iranians have always looked for opportunities to express their anger. The establishment, to counteract this, has tried to create safety valves, such as regular elections, in order to ease the angst and desperation of the citizens.
It was just seven months before this uprising that the Islamic Republic held its 12th presidential election, in which the Iranians enthusiastically cast their votes, and President Rouhani won with a clear majority for the second time. Two years earlier, Tehranians voluntarily gathered at Tehran Airport to welcome Rouhani’s foreign minister (Javad Zarif) on his return from Vienna, where he had concluded a nuclear deal with the international community.
Iranians were very hopeful that the nuclear deal could bring prosperity to the country. In reality also, besides sanction reliefs, millions of dollars, which had hitherto been frozen outside, was released. But this money never trickled down to the people. Iranians thought that this money was either being spent for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar Assad in Syria, the Shia militants in Iraq, and the Houthis in
The problem first broke out on Dec. 10,
On the other hand, the conservatives were already angry with Rouhani over the latter’s pre-election statements and his consequent victory in the May 2017 presidential election. They were also planning to cash in on the president’s economic failure by exploiting the grievances of the downtrodden layers of the society. For this purpose, the city of Mashhad was a particularly ideal place for two simple reasons:
First, the city is the powerhouse of Ibrahim Raeesi (President Rouhani’s rival in the last presidential election, and the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine), and his father-in-law Hujjat-ul Islam Alam-ul-Huda, (the
The conservatives expected that the protests would remain under control and provide them with a pretext to pressure the president. But the protesters soon showed their real intentions when they started demanding the end of the Islamic Republic. By the next
That said, jumping to any conclusion about the likely outcomes of the uprising might be premature as yet. We can, however, safely ask the following question: What are the most significant aspects of this uprising and how is it different from previous ones? To answer this two-fold question, we would need to decode the demography of the protestors, the nature of the slogans being chanted, and the geographic distribution of the uprising.
As a matter of fact, the ongoing uprising is different in all aspects from any revolt that happened previously. For instance, during the 2009 post-presidential election riots, the majority of the protesters were from the upper-middle class, whose main slogan was “where is my vote?” They were demanding their civil rights. In the current uprising, however, the majority of the protestors are from the “barefoot” class, that is, the downtrodden segment of the
Also in the current uprising, the
However, the variety of the slogans, ranging from demands for the ‘provision of basic rights’ to demands for ‘the restructuring of the entire political system’, also means that the thresholds of the demands are also different this time, with each being represented by a distinct sub-class. Therefore, the movement is significantly pluralistic in nature. To put it another way, different people with different demands are protesting side by side, and the only factor that seems to bind them together is their demand for change.
The current uprising is highly prevalent in terms of having spread to every corner of the country. More importantly, unlike previous uprisings, this time small, remote and peripheral cities and towns are on the front, because the people of these cities have been more adversely affected by bad economy than the people in
While the current uprising is the most radical and comprehensive one in the Islamic Republic to date, there are some fundamental issues that can play either negative or positive
First, the uprising does not have a leader. It can prove as a merit or demerit. Leaders can give direction to the movement and gather the members around defined goals and objectives, and provide them with a future line of action. Nonetheless, in an authoritarian system like that of Iran, it also involves the risk of compromise. Plus, the arrest of the leader can break down the morale of the movement, as in the case of what befell the Green Movement following the arrest of its twin leaders (
Second, although the uprising is widespread in terms of geographical area, the middle class and/or upper class has not joined it fully. The reason perhaps is that this class is still suffering from the trauma of the crackdown in the aftermath of the 2009 election, and also the origins of this protest is a bit doubtful in their eyes; they view it as a conspiracy fabricated by the principled camp to pressure President Rouhani.
Third, the approach of the international community can also play a significant role in boosting the morale of the protestors. During the 2009 protests, one of the slogans was “Obama! Obama! Either with them or with us!” (Obama, Obama! Ya ba
One would need to wait and see how the Iranian authorities would approach the uprising. So far the establishment seems confused. Also, there is no consensus among the ruling elite on how to deal with the issue due to the ongoing power politics between various personalities and political fractions.
Invariably, the Islamic Republic is strong enough to crush the uprising. A regime with vast experience in putting down revolutions in Syria and Yemen can easily suppress an uprising within its own country. But, while the Iranian establishment is very good at suppression, it is very bad at management. There are already indications that it is not ready to face the reality as it is. It is claiming that protestors have taken to the streets on the invitation of foreign countries, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.
Looking at the nature of the slogans, the demography of the protestors, and the geographic prevalence of the uprising, it is safe to argue that even if the current unrest will not be the end of the Islamic Republic, it will certainly usher in a very challenging era for the regime, because the people, at least theoretically, have come to the conclusion that the solution to their problem does not lie in the current political system, its reform project included. Once a nation has theoretical conviction about what it wants and what it does not, it usually does not take the practical part too long to follow.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.