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Three Days That Will Change Iran Forever

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 [1] in Iran have been surging [2] 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 [3] that household budgets had fallen by 15 percent over the past 10 years. Consumption of many foods has fallen [4], 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, [5] and [6] other delicious and nutritious animal products [7]. The Hassan Rouhani administration’s new budget featured [8] 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.

[9]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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12] incite [13] 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 [14], 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 [15] 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 [16]hashtag diplomacy [17]” 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 [18] 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.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Three Days That Will Change Iran Forever"

#1 Comment By Realist On December 31, 2017 @ 2:43 am

The US needs to stop it’s involvement in other countries affairs.

#2 Comment By Matt D. On December 31, 2017 @ 3:23 am

“The hardliners have blamed us (and Israel, of course) for the protests, but they always do that.”

What makes you think it isn’t true?

I see a lot of words in this article, but I’m not sure how much content there really is, versus hopeful speculation.

Back in the real world, it seems very unlikely these protests will go anywhere in the current climate. Today, after all that has happened in the middle east, and given the ongoing tensions between Iran and Saudi, Israel, USA: How many people in Iran could possibly be naive enough to get themselves mixed up in a protest movement like this?

My guess is that the number is small. And from all reports we’ve received so far, the protests have been very, very small. So, perhaps there will be ongoing, small protests, as a provocation. The Iranian establishment will continue to organize much larger counterprotests. They’ll continue to make arrests. The Western media will continue to seize on anything that happens that can be sold as an atrocity. Trump and Bibi will have talking points. But we’re not going to bring them down this way.

#3 Comment By JEinCA On December 31, 2017 @ 4:12 am

Call me cynical but I have a hard time believing these protests are “Organic” and “Homegrown”. Maybe it’s been watching events unfold since 9/11 across the globe and seeing that most of the Western interventions, revolutions and civil wars since that time have “Made In America” and “Designed in Israel” written all over them. I’m an American who’s come to realize that Iran’s enemies are my enemies and vice versa. I want to live to see the neocons arrested, convicted and duly punished for what they’ve done to my country.

#4 Comment By Rodrigo Alvarez On December 31, 2017 @ 5:01 am

Hope? Haven’t we learned our lesson YET about these ridiculous “protests” and where they lead in the Middle East? Libya, Yemen, Syria not enough? The regime is odious, but there is no denying many of their economic issues are due to the economic sanctions placed on them by, you guessed it, the US and friends. This is more neocon trash about “freedom” and “democracy” that has done nothing but end the lives of millions of innocent people. This is the last thing a fractious and unstable ME needs right now. I expect better from the American Conservative.

#5 Comment By spite On December 31, 2017 @ 6:59 am

I don’t even know why Amconmag exists anymore, it started out as a rejection of the neocon ideology pretending to representive conservative views. Yet here you are providing stock standard neocon garbage that comes right out of Commentry or National Review.

#6 Comment By SteveK9 On December 31, 2017 @ 8:54 am

Protesting about economic conditions was supported by Khameini. The other stuff is just our latest attempt at ‘regime change’ (signs in English are a good clue). It won’t go anywhere in Iran.

#7 Comment By Youknowho On December 31, 2017 @ 9:03 am

I wonder if the U.S. statements of support will help or hurt the protesters. I mean, isn’t that what the regime wants, to blame the U.S. for the unrest, and to tag the protesters for being in the pay of the C.I.A., thus making it easier to persecute them.

It is nice to make statements and feel virtuous about it, but not if it leads the subjects of your concern to the gallows.

#8 Comment By Michael Kenny On December 31, 2017 @ 10:33 am

The author doesn’t mention the effect on Putin of a US-Iran “kiss and make up”. It would completely torpedo Putin’s position in the Middle East generally and Syria in particular.

#9 Comment By k squared On December 31, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

if there was ever a time and subject for trump to keep quiet this is it – i’m not hopeful though

#10 Comment By k squared On December 31, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

and the rest of the interventionists

#11 Comment By Iron Felix On December 31, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

There is no doubt that the Iranian people have suffered economically over the past years. In any country, except the US where the people are politically dead, people go into the streets to protest such conditions.

The completely unjustified sanctions regime implemented against Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons program has a lot to do with it. Even today, when Iran has agreed to the most restrictive inspection regime by the IAEA, Trump and the Republicans in Congress and neo-cons generally, insist on more sanctions. A few days ago the IAEA released its year end report confirming that Iran is faithfully implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal. It said

:The IAEA continued to verify and monitor the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In his quarterly reports to the IAEA Board of Governors, Mr Amano confirmed that the nuclear commitments undertaken by Iran were being implemented. IAEA inspectors have continued to inspect facilities in Iran, have taken hundreds of environmental samples, and carried out activities supported by state-of-the-art technology, including data collecting and processing systems.”


#12 Comment By Lenny On December 31, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

The biggest mistake the US did was not to back the Kurdish independence

Erdogan would be wise to actually promote and nurture an independent Kurdistan, as it will shield Turkey from trouble, and increase its sphere of influence

Iran is the biggest loser from any independence movement due to its ethnic make up and to the blatant racism among Persians, as noted by the author

#13 Comment By SteveK9 On December 31, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

Not sure if this is wishful thinking, propaganda or some combination of both.

#14 Comment By Nelson On December 31, 2017 @ 8:30 pm

Suppose things do get out of control and the regime collapses. What then?…

Thanks for being one of the few to ask, and try to answer, this question.

#15 Comment By Not for Nothing On December 31, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

This is really none of our business. We should stand well clear of it – it’s not as though we don’t have urgent problems of our own to address.

#16 Comment By Rostam On January 1, 2018 @ 12:23 am

As always, an American “expert” completely “confused” about Iran.

#17 Comment By Dennis Brislen On January 1, 2018 @ 12:56 am

Horse manure. This operation smells of US-Israeli planning to hijack peaceful economic protests (nothing new in Iran) and create violence by way of Mossad-MEK collusion.

TAC should know better. Disappointing.

#18 Comment By Johann On January 1, 2018 @ 7:29 am

“Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” and “We are Iranians, we don’t worship Arabs”. Sounds like “Make Iran great again”. Go MIGA!

Seriously though, our pols should stay out of it. Iranians will settle this.

#19 Comment By Christian Chuba On January 1, 2018 @ 10:23 am

“If the protests are still unresolved, Trump may feel forced to hit snooze”

Trump will negate the JCPOA because it will reinforce his belief that the Iranian ‘regime’ was on the verge of collapse because of economic sanctions before they were rescued by Obama.

So 10yrs ago, the Iranians had plenty of meat, eggs, and fish, what happened right about then ?
1. The Iranian govt used to be ‘less terrorist’ and more honest than they are now.
… or …
2. We imposed sanctions that did actually harm their economy.

I’m going with 2, which is what any non-brain dead Iranian is going to believe as well. Strangling their economy will not get Iranians to love us. Those protesting economic conditions probably believe that the govt can play the hand they were dealt more skillfully but they know who dealt them the hand.

#20 Comment By Someone in the crowd On January 1, 2018 @ 1:04 pm

This article has the odor of propaganda.

#21 Comment By B. Bagheri On January 1, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

Iran has a long national and political history. But in modern times it has lagged behind and is politically immature (as the comment by “Iranian Expat”) demonstrates.

As bad as this regime is, it is far better for all involved if it gradually improves and matures than if there is violent upheaval or war.

#22 Comment By JKS On January 1, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

The real question is: Will a Persian spring be any more fruitful than an Arab spring?

#23 Comment By Amir On January 1, 2018 @ 5:45 pm

The egg prices have been skyrocketing as the chicken population have been dissimated due to Avian Flu.

Normally, the poultry should have been vaccinated but corruption has lead to lack of immunization and subsequent devastation of the industry.

The grainy YouTube video of protestors, with poor perspective that prohibits a thorough evaluation of their veracity and origin, does not show any political upheaval whatsoever. They are video propaganda efforts in tradition of the Syrian White Helmets Oscar Nominees’ fruitless efforts.

For a through analysis of the current political drama, I refer to the following website and analysis by a local correspondent, Ramin Mazaheri

#24 Comment By Youknowho On January 1, 2018 @ 5:50 pm


Hope beats eternally in a neocon’s heart.

#25 Comment By Gazza On January 1, 2018 @ 10:09 pm

“The author doesn’t mention the effect on Putin of a US-Iran “kiss and make up”. It would completely torpedo Putin’s position in the Middle East generally and Syria in particular.”

Michael Kenny and his endless crusade to make EVERYTHING about Putin. Its clearly a unhealthy obsession…

#26 Comment By IranMan On January 1, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

I for one find the author’s work the current unrest, and choose that word very carefully, engaging, credible, and informative. A quick look at his book, “War With Iran: Political, Military and Economic Consequences”, clearly convey strong neo-con mentality.

My apologies for the uncouth and sophomoric comments by “Iranian Expat”, as well as the uncalled for personal attacks.

I happen to subscribe to the theory that “hardliners wanted to amplify dissent against the Rouhani government.” They lost control by missing the important point the Iranian society is like a tinderbox and a spark is enough to set it off. I would look for any sign of large industrial workers’ participation, general strikes and work stoppages. That moment has not come yet.

#27 Comment By Luke On January 2, 2018 @ 12:09 am

Where did Barack Obama get the billions of dollars that he shipped to Iran?

#28 Comment By Sanf On January 2, 2018 @ 4:13 pm

A thorough, timely, balanced, and nuanced overview. I, too, wonder about how Trump will respond to these protests when it comes time to act further on the nuclear treaty. I guess I disagree with the author’s assertion that further protests should have any effect whatsoever on how the US views a nuclear armed Iran. Under no circumstances must this be permitted. The US, Saudis and Israel will see to that, fortunately.

#29 Comment By IranMan On January 2, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

@Luke, the “billions of dollars” that was returned to Iran happen to be Iranian funds kept hostage by the US as many more billions still in “custody” in the US.

You can avoid sounding stupid, by doing some research. Can you manage that?

#30 Comment By Where do dollars come from, Daddy? On January 5, 2018 @ 3:28 am

“Where did Barack Obama get the billions of dollars that he shipped to Iran?”

He got them from Iran, actually. He was returning Iran’s own money to Iran. Some of it, anyway.

Unlike the billions that Obama shipped to Israel, which was ripped out of the wallets of American taxpayers.