Jan 05, 2018

What is Happening in Iran?

Photo credit to Le Parisien

The recent outbreak of demonstrations in Iran is attracting the attention of the world along with a rising concern for the civil population of Iran that is suffering violent repression from the government. These recent demonstrations, before being politically-motivated, are at their centre a call for an economic change.  

Starting in Mashhad last Thursday [28 December 2017], low income workers took to the streets in response to hyperinflation that saw the price of staple foods, such as eggs and poultry, increase by 50%. In addition, the government took the decision to close vital credit establishments in Mashhad that had gone bankrupt, having a significant negative impact on low income workers in particular. According to official records, more than 140 thousand citizens had invested in credit establishments such as these and their livelihoods depended on them. In his annual budget plan, President Hassan Rouhani further targeted this vulnerable demographic by removing the entitlement to social welfare from 30 million people and allocating the resources to increasing the budget for security forces by 40% from that of the previous year.  

Moreover, this budget publicly revealed for the first time the amount of public money allocated to non-elected institutions associated with the regime, for example religious institutions and research institutes. The previous secrecy around this funding along with the realisation of the extent of the funding allocated to these institutions catalysed discontent among the population, for which life on a daily basis is extremely difficult.  

Moreover, Iranian interference in the affairs of states such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Nigeria is a central concern of demonstrators. According to the United Nations, the cost of the Iranian support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amounts to around 15 billion dollars every year, whereas within Iran 10 million people are living under poverty line. A quick calculation demonstrates that the war in Syria costs every Iranian citizen more than 6000 dollars. Those taking to the streets have understood the connection between Iran's expensive foreign policies and their dire situation. This rejection of Iran's interference in other countries has manifested itself in the famous slogan used by demonstrators, "No Gaza , No Lebanon , I will sacrifice myself for Iran".

Another relevant factor of discontent is the unemployment rate among Iranian youths. Highly educated young people represent more than 60 percent of those unemployed within Iran. There are very few opportunities for young people to realise their potential in Iran, despite having achieved excellent qualifications. The high rate of youth unemployment may explain the extensive use of social media and networking apps in the organisation of the demonstrations, as more young people are involved in the demonstrations.

All of these elements combined has led to this uprising, which has continued to spread throughout Iran. Iranian officials declared that there have been 22 deaths over the past week and around 1000 protesters detained however, activists in Iran state that this figure falls short and that thousands of protesters in each city have been detained.

These protests are directed towards President Rouhani and his perceived inability to keep his promises. Since the beginning of his mandate, human rights violations in Iran have increased. Despite a very promising Nuclear Deal, a positive outcome of this deal for the Iranian population has yet to be seen. Moreover, Rouhani committed to include more women among the members of his ministerial cabinet however as yet he has only included three women as consultants and not as ministers. Rouhani appears to be resisting reforms despite increasing pressure due to the reformative action taken by neighbouring states such as the UAE. It is possible that the lack of reform is due to Rouhani's lack of power in the check-and-balance political structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which relies heavily on the Guardian Council consisting of extreme conservatives.

Minorities in all regions also participated in the recent protests. The centralisation of political power in Tehran also condemns those on the peripheries to being economically and politically marginalised, but also repressed in terms of identity in ethno-linguistic minority regions in Iran. Minority regions have witnessed numerous uprisings in response to the negative impact of government policies and the rise of poverty in these areas. In Al-Ahwaz, for example, which is an Arab majority region, recently held demonstrations because of the systematic destruction of environment due to unscientific methods of extracting natural resources and diverting rivers from the region.  

The current demonstrations are the crystallisation of popular frustration about political and economic stagnation. How to respond to these demonstrations has caused major issues for the Iranian regime. If it uses force and violence to crackdown on the demonstrator, Iran will once again be under negative scrutiny from the international community, damaging previous efforts to normalise this relationship.

However, if the regime allows the demonstrations to continue and spread, it is possible we may witness a successful ‘spring’ or revolt in Iran and which will put the regime under serious threat.