Iran was in recent months rocked by its largest wave of protests since the 2009 Green movement, when millions demanded the re-run of a disputed presidential election. From December 28, 2017 tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in a number of cities, to protest against economic hardship and political repression. These protests resulted in 21 deaths, hundreds of civilian arrests, blocking of social media apps and retaliation from the Iranian government. As evident, Iran has been projecting itself as a regional power in the Middle East region, however for years the country is facing significant domestic challenges. Thus, the question that should be asked, is: what does this turmoil mean for Iran’s emerging power position?
There is a long history of political protests in Iran. Generally, these protests are triggered by economic and other grievances, such as price inflation, the imposition of new taxes and duties. However, there have been instances where protests have occurred due to, the nationalisation of oil resources (1952) and land tenancy (1963-1978, “White Revolution”). The frequent nature of protests occurring in Iran can arguably be viewed as the Iranian people refusing to accept the legitimacy of the regime. In this regard, where people’s freedom of expression is restricted and retaliation ensues, the government has responded through violent means.
The recent protests in Iran have an economic and political dimension to it. Demonstrations were at first about the failure of President Hassan Rouhani's government to “revive Iran's struggling economy, address high unemployment, [inequality], inflation, and combat alleged corruption”. Under Rouhani there has been a few successes with regard to reducing inflation and improving economic growth. However, this has not been enough as he has failed to deliver the most pivotal change - reducing unemployment. According to the World Bank, unemployment is about 12.6% (roughly 3.2 million are unemployed), and in other parts of country it is more than 60%. Young and highly educated individuals are severely affected by this. In addition, under Rouhani poverty has increased along with gas prices, and in the past year prices of basic goods have increased by at least 40%.
Under Rouhani, the nuclear deal made in 2015 with the US, UK, Russia, France, China, and Germany, was perceived as a prospect to improve Iran economically. Sanction relief was supposed to benefit Iran domestically; however, it seems that the short-term benefits of the deal was used to assist Syria’s regime and fund groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, instead of using this money to address the countries domestic issues. In turn leaving Iranian civilians suffering.
This above factor leads to the political dimension of the protests. Demonstrators were challenging leading figures, chanting “Death to Ayatollah Khamenei” (Supreme leader of Iran), “let go of Syria, think about us”, others have been burning the supreme leaders picture and some woman have removed their hijabs. This clearly exemplifies the dissatisfaction individuals have towards the regime, and some have even lauded the monarchy overthrown in 1979. As a result, the Iranian government has responded in violence and has even blamed outside powers such as the US for the recent protests.
Essentially, under Rouhani there has been a slight improvement in the country, however it is not what the Iranian people have hoped for. The country is plagued with high rates of unemployment, inflation and poverty. With the money the government does receive, it rather invests in strengthening its position in the Middle East. Therefore, the protests can be largely viewed as a result of Iran’s ambitious foreign policy in the region at the expense of its domestic needs.
The protests are unlikely to change the current regime or have an immediate political shift, and resentment towards the regime will remain and remerge again. With these protests, Iran’s’ position in the Middle East and the international arena will undoubtedly change. Time and again, the Rouhani regime has proven unrelenting, and now with the recent protests the government realises that it needs to change in order to remain in power. Therefore, it could be said that a change in system could occur in Iran in the future. Iran can be considered an emerging power, but does this hold any significance if the domestic needs of civilians are compromised?
Ms Negar Fayazi holds a BA Hons in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with the University of South Africa (UNISA). Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.