Iran has now been rocked by three days of street protests. At the time of this writing (early Saturday afternoon here in the United States, Saturday night in Iran), it remains unclear where the protests are going and whether the regime will crack down. I’ll try to provide some insight into the dynamics and point out some things to watch, followed by a quick look at what might happen next if the regime falls, and an assessment of U.S. interests and options.
First, while the origins of the crisis are unclear, economic grievances seem to be the main driver. Egg prices in Iran have been surging and banks have been unstable. Iran’s economy has suffered from a decade of malaise, and this has hit ordinary people hard. A study earlier this month by BBC Persian found that household budgets had fallen by 15 percent over the past 10 years. Consumption of many foods has fallen, too. Ten years ago, Iranians consumed twice as much fish, 39 percent more red meat, 11 percent more bird meats, 38 percent more vegetable oil, 84 percent more sugar, 7 percent more yogurt, and 71 percent more milk than they did last year. The fall in consumption was sharper than the fall in the size of households. This is a shift away from the typical pattern in developing countries: more prosperity means more food, which means a shift toward fish, meat, and other delicious and nutritious animal products. The Hassan Rouhani administration’s new budget featured plans to boost fuel prices, including gasoline, and the administration has increasingly struggled to keep reformists on board, since the pace of social reform seems slow. Pollution is so bad that schools are often closed, especially in these colder months. Water resources are drying up. Unemployment is high.
So there are many legitimate grievances that might have brought both ordinary Iranians and more urbane, reform-minded people into the streets. Rumors have abounded as to how the protests started. One theory is that hardliners wanted to amplify dissent against the Rouhani government. Economic issues have been a traditional centerpiece of conservative critiques of Rouhani, and the protests began in Mashhad, birthplace of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and home to hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda. Alamolhoda’s son-in-law Ebrahim Raisi, in addition to having been a key figure in mass executions in the late 1980s, was Rouhani’s challenger in this year’s presidential elections and is a rumored Khamenei successor. Today (Saturday) is the 9th of Dey on the Persian calendar, when hardliners commemorated demonstrations against the 2009 Green Movement. Might those have been the origin of the current protests? If so, it was an exceptionally foolish move. The demonstrations are now beyond hardline control and have become a crisis for the entire regime.
And where will the crisis go? This is quite unclear. So far there has not been much of a crackdown. Still, there is little evidence that the regime is any less willing to beat, torture, rape, and kill than it was when it crushed the 2009 protests. That means we may be on the verge of a new round of bloodshed if the protests continue. Iran’s political space, which had opened a bit in recent years, could grow even narrower. That would create serious questions about long-term stability, since so many factions have already been squeezed out: not only more liberal forces and Green movement supporters, but those around every living former president other than Khamenei himself. That includes not only Mohammad Khatami’s reformists, but also Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rowdy conservative populists, who have also been at the center of controversy in recent weeks.
What do the protesters want? That’s murky, too. The slogan “na Ghazeh, na Lubnan, janam fedaye Iran” has been in the air—“not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran.” So have fresher critiques of Iran’s vast expenditures fighting in Syria even as domestic conditions languor. But much of the energy seems to be directed against the regime itself, and particularly against its hardline elements. The loudest slogan from crowds I watched on a rally livestreamed from a city in Western Iran was “marg bar Khamenei”—“Death to Khamenei.” That’s a twist on the famous “Death to America.” Similarly, protesters in one video could be heard shouting “esteghlal, azadi, jomhouri Irani”—“Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic,” an anti-regime adjustment of the 1979 revolution’s “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.” That same video featured a darker slogan: “We are Iranian, we don’t worship Arabs”—a dig at the Islamic Republic’s elevation of an Arab-origin religion, sure, but also a reminder of the chauvinist streak in Iranian nationalism.
Some things to watch in the coming days: First, do the protests peter out, or do they continue to draw large crowds? The regime will likely seek to split the majority of people from the hard core of the protesters, both by raising the cost of participating in rallies and by amplifying extreme voices. Second, will there be an increase in violence? So far we have seen nothing like 2009 from the regime, though on the other side there’s been talk that the new Restart movement might incite people to violence, or that protesters may become violent on their own. This would be a bad development: as leading civic resistance scholars Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock have argued, violent movements operating on the flanks of nonviolent movements often don’t help, and may make success less likely by driving down popular participation, the real driver of nonviolent protest success. Third, does Rouhani grow weaker or stronger? The key to Rouhani’s success has been that he’s kept Iranians’ desire for change under control; accomplishing this now could strengthen his hand. However, a crackdown would weaken him, tying him yet again to violence against those who favor reforms while elevating the security forces that have often checked his agenda.
Suppose things do get out of control and the regime collapses. What then? First, the regime controls huge shares of the economy and is a source of many livelihoods. Would the losers go quietly into the night, or resist? Second, would unrest grow on Iran’s fringes? The days after the 1979 revolution saw much violence by ethnic separatists on the periphery. Kurdish militant groups have been stirring in recent years, energized by the Kurdish struggle against ISIS. Chaos at the center could create new opportunities for those on the edges. A Kurdish ascendancy in northwestern Iran could stir up trouble in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Finally, who ends up on top? Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was initially a figurehead in the 1979 revolution, which included many other currents of opposition to the Shah. Khomeini’s allies had to struggle for several years to achieve an unchallenged monopoly on power. Would such a prolonged power struggle be the result of a current regime downfall?
And how should America respond to all this? The hardliners have blamed us (and Israel, of course) for the protests, but they always do that. So far, the State Department has put out a statement favoring the protests, as have President Donald Trump, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Senator Tom Cotton. Some hawks have been patting each other on the back for their clear responses, unlike Barack Obama who dithered over the 2009 protests. Yet so far their support has amounted to a few tweets resembling 2014’s much-mocked “hashtag diplomacy” from the State Department on Ukraine. There’s little evidence that American responses are at all shaping events on the ground. This is unsurprising, since we have no embassy in Iran, limited cultural exchange, and almost no economic contact. And how many Iranians wait with bated breath for Paul Ryan’s next tweet? How many Iranians who struggle to put food on their tables even know who Paul Ryan is? Most of our response to this crisis has been more about our own internal politics than Iran’s. For much of the American political class, foreign policy is a performative activity, a way of showing off one’s own sound morals and firm character. Let’s just hope they continue to virtue-signal with tweets and not cruise missiles.
The protests may have a silver lining for U.S.-Iranian relations. There have been worries that Trump will back out of the Iran deal in January. If the protests are still unresolved, Trump may feel forced to hit snooze, lest he set off an unpredictable chain of events. Of course, a bloody crackdown might make a U.S. withdrawal more likely—an odd result, since (further) proof of the regime’s viciousness should make us want Iran to have nuclear weapons even less, and the deal remains the best obstacle to a nuclear Iran. Yet at the moment, the fate of the deal, like the fate of the protests, remains undecided. We have no basis yet to assert that the regime is about to fall, but whatever happens, there’s no denying things will be different in Iran after these protests—for good or for ill.
John Allen Gay is coauthor of the 2013 book War with Iran: Political, Military and Economic Consequences.