An own-goal for the hardliners

The blaze of popular wrath that has been ignited in Iran's provinces has long since begun to consume the cities as well. Initially intended by hardliners as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with President Rouhani, the demonstrations are now directed at the system as a whole. By Ali Sadrzadeh

By Ali Sadrzadeh

What's going on in Iran? The latest wave of social unrest began in the provinces, causing some people to say it is therefore limited, unpredictable, aimless and ultimately also dangerous. Others, however, contend that the uprising is authentic, original and therefore full of future promise.

The intellectual debate about the nature of the struggle that has been raging for days in the streets of Iranian towns and cities continues unabated, just like the protests themselves. What is going on in the theocracy? Who is protesting against whom? And what will happen next?

What we do know for sure is that the political earthquake currently rocking Iran is unprecedented. It is a test of strength that poses a huge challenge to the Islamic Republic, now in its fortieth year. Some people see in the protests a prelude of things to come: a power struggle over the legacy of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei. It is an initial struggle that those currently in power are likely to win, because only they have the military wherewithal and are prepared to exercise the requisite brutality.

The people in the provinces and the kingmaker

The protest movement got underway in the provinces, in the city of Mashhad in north-western Iran, nearly a thousand kilometres away from the capital, Tehran. It all started with an appeal posted by hardliners in the social networks. They called for a demonstration outside Mashhad's town hall against Rouhani's economic policies: against the hike in petrol prices, cuts in social spending, and rising prices for eggs and poultry. The protest movement had the blessing of the most powerful man in the province – at least at first.

Protests against Ayatollah Khamenei and the country's political leaders (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo)
Not the Green Revolution reloaded: it would appear that in contrast to the demonstrations of 2009, the current wave of demonstrations in Iran is less about democracy and civil rights than about high prices, unemployment and social injustice. Another difference is that this movement does not have any clear leaders. Thus far, most reformers have avoided aligning themselves with the protesters. Pictured here: people protest against Ayatollah Khamenei and the country's political leaders

His name is Ayatollah Alam Al Hoda, Friday prayer leader in the holy city of Mashhad and representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the province of Khorassan. Some call the 73-year-old ayatollah not only the king of the province but also the kingmaker for the entire country. His son-in-law Ebrahim Raisi was Rouhani's rival in the presidential election five months ago. Neither father-in-law nor son-in-law ever really got over Raisi's defeat, nor did the other hardliners in Iran, chief among them their supreme leader.

Protest rallies large and small have been held across the country for several weeks. Some were called by workers who have not received wages for months, others by pensioners who have nothing left to live on, some by the poor but also by rich citizens who have been robbed of all their savings by sham banks.

What do all the protests have in common? They are all aimed at Rouhani's government. Until now, the demonstrations have been tolerated and even praised by the newspapers and on websites, particularly those allied with the hardliners. But it is not just the hardliners who are trying to topple Rouhani. For his supporters too, the months since his re-election have brought nothing but disappointment and disillusionment. The widespread accusation is that he has not been able to achieve any of the things he promised. What's more, Rouhani's cabinet includes neither a single woman nor a Sunni; instead, his ministers were forced on him by the hardliners. In the social networks as well, people have long since given up on Rouhani – if the laments of disappointed voters that have been multiplying for weeks under the hashtag "I regret" are anything to go by.Rebellion of the "disenfranchised"

Finally, the poor in the remote regions of the country are also angered by Rouhani's government. According to official estimates, some ten million of the country's 83 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and that in a country that could potentially be very wealthy. Exacerbating the situation is a climate catastrophe, the consequences of which are already plain to see: water shortages and drought in villages and small towns are part of the everyday life of many Iranians, just like the unprecedented air pollution in the cities that affects millions of people.

Rouhani's government has so far proven itself incapable of solving any of these problems. When a major earthquake shook the province of Kurdistan five weeks ago, chaos reigned and all help came too late. In fact, the state seemed to be virtually absent during the first few days after the disaster.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (photo: picture-alliance/Iranian Presidency Office)
"This is why Rouhani has more to fear from the pressure from abroad than from that in the Iranian provinces. After all, the success of his domestic policies depends on a normalisation of relations between Iran and the outside world. But his foreign policy, in particular those policies that relate to the region, is determined chiefly by his rivals: the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards as well as the mafia-like forces allied with them," writes Ali Sadrzadeh. Pictured here: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani

Rouhani's political formulas are ineffective in the face of the mounting problems he must tackle. Both his voters and his opponents have written off his government as incapable. For the hardliners, this all-encompassing discontent seemed to present an invaluable asset; they thought it might help bring down the hated Rouhani government.

After weeks of small rallies in various towns and cities, the plan was to send the clearest possible signal last Thursday from Mashhad, the hometown of Rouhani's rival. Originally, several hundred people were to gather outside the town hall to demonstrate against Rouhani. But this time, the hardliners' calculation went badly wrong.

Out of control

The protests boomeranged; a state crisis ensued. Suddenly, not only hundreds but thousands of people showed up and were undoubtedly extremely dissatisfied, not only with the government under Rouhani but with the Islamic Republic as a whole. And with lightning speed, numerous slogans against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei began to spread through the social networks. The crowd chanted: "Let go of Syria, think of us!", "Down with the dictator!" and "Down with Khamenei!".

One hour after the end of the demonstration, Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri went before the press to warn the political rivals in Mashhad: "You may call for demonstrations, but you will not be able to control them in the end." He would turn out to be right. Mashhad was just the beginning and a signal for the rest of the country to follow suit. Since then, people have taken to the streets daily in dozens of towns and cities in all provinces of Iran, chanting against the theocracy. They are the "disenfranchised", the mass grassroots that once supported the Islamic revolution.

What's more, the protests are becoming increasingly violent. According to official sources, a dozen people had been killed by Monday evening and several hundred arrested. Until that point, all were victims of the police, which is under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. For the moment, the revolutionary guards are staying in their barracks, said a Pasdaran spokesman on Monday evening.

Although the paramilitary militias (the Basij) had to be deployed here and there, the time for the guards to intervene had not yet come, he added. But it will come should the unrest assume dimensions that jeopardise the system.

Moreover, the guards will not hesitate to use brutal means to put down the uprising, as they demonstrated during the so-called "Green Revolution" nine years ago. However, there is in fact another reason for their current restraint: like all hardliners, they initially condoned the limited demonstrations – as long as they were directed against President Rouhani. In recent weeks, their press mouthpieces reported daily on the economic plight of the people and showed understanding for the small and large rallies organised by pensioners, the jobless and those who had been cheated out of their savings.

The anti-Iran coalition rejoices

The time and circumstances in which all of this is happening could not be more dangerous. Governments in other countries – in particular the US Administration – are keeping a close eye on what is happening in Iran. "The first thing President Trump sent out into the world today was a tweet about the unrest in Iran," said a reporter from BBC Persian on Sunday evening. Nearly all senior American politicians are expressing their views almost hourly on the events in Iran. On Tuesday morning, the first working day of the year, the US Vice-President tweeted that the President and he would not "repeat the shameful mistake of our past when others stood by and ignored the heroic resistance of the Iranian people as they fought against their brutal regime."

This is why Rouhani has more to fear from the pressure from abroad than from that in the Iranian provinces. After all, the success of his domestic policies depends on a normalisation of relations between Iran and the outside world. But his foreign policy, in particular those policies that relate to the region, is determined chiefly by his rivals: the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards as well as the mafia-like forces allied with them. It is namely the activities of the guards in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, that are threatening the survival not only of Rouhani but of the whole system. A powerful coalition consisting of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA is doing everything in its power to push Iran back out of those countries.

Meanwhile, Internet access for Iranians has been virtually blocked since Sunday. President Trump promptly responded via Twitter, saying that "Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!"

Ali Sadrzadeh

© Iran Journal 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor