A Revolutionary Regime and Its Discontents
January 10, 2018 | For the first time in nearly ten years, the rumblings of serious discontent are making their way through Iran. The country has slogged through a stagnant economy for years, with international sanctions, corruption, and chronically low oil prices all to blame. Large crowds took to the streets in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, on December 28th to protest these economic problems, but they quickly spread to over 80 different cities and included issues like the longstanding and highly conservative Islamic regime that rules the country. Naturally, the hardliners within the government—such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the shadowy Iranian Revolutionary Guard—opposed the protests, making calls that the cause of the 1979 Islamic Revolution be protected. The international response was likewise predictable, with international organizations and foreign powers expressing concern for human rights conditions and support for the protests respectively.
Immediate comparisons to the largely unsuccessful Green Movement of 2009 were made, but this begs the question of just how similar 2009 and 2018 are. More than half of the protesters are young people under 30. This demographic faces upwards of 24 percent unemployment in a disorganized economy wracked by years-long sanctions. This is a generation more connected than ever before—the key difference between this series of protests and the Green Movement almost a decade before is simple: 48 million more smartphones. The combination of mass youth organization and political empowerment through modern technology is a potent one; it could spell the beginning of a potentially long road to the opening of the regime.
The reason why youth organization is so key is because they are a group of people raised in an age of social media and relatively unfiltered access to information about the outside world—including the West. A metric for rejection of conservative social values particular to Iran is how much women (and especially young women) embrace or reject modest dress. Photographs of the protests often feature young women with most of or their entire head uncovered, action which violates the mandatory dress code that women cover their hair.
Beyond demographics, these protests are markedly different than the Green Movement in both its brevity, its cause, and its violence. Unlike the Green Movement, which was sparked after disputed elections, this protest sparked from economic issues and later moved political through criticism of the regime and even its foreign policy in the Middle East; many in Iran consider Iranian activity outside its territory to occupy resources and attention better used internally. Despite the furor, the protests were “officially” quashed in a week by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on Sunday, with more than 3,700 arrests and 21 protesters killed.
Considering that Iran, despite its conservative appearance to outsiders, is a relatively open society, the regime may be cracking down too hard and sowing further seeds of discontent. The usage of unofficial and harsh detention centers for arrested protesters is reminiscent of the government response to the 2009 protests. In 2018, the use of such detention centers has resulted in a handful of notable deaths outside the aforementioned deaths in violent clashes with law enforcement. As the Iranian people have proven again and again, they have a long memory; 2009 and 2018 will not likely be forgotten.
In the wake of these protests, the question of an U.S. response is in the air. As of Tuesday, the Trump administration has planned to impose sanctions on Iranian state television—in addition to requisite Trump tweets. However, the prospect of real U.S. involvement is problematic. While there may be an impulse to immediately respond with even harsher sanctions or more overt support for protesters to promote liberal institutions, it may not be the best course of action given U.S.-Iran history. Supreme Leader Khamenei has already painted the protests as a Western plot and adding more ammunition to his regime could be counterproductive. It was not so long ago that the U.S. deposed a democratically elected leader of Iran—Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953—and left painful scars ever since.
The winds of change are blowing, however, and some political leaders have taken note. President Rouhani has departed with Khamenei’s assessment with a veiled jab against the old guard. He said of the protests that, “People had economic, political and social demands.” Not only that, he supported the youth, stating, “We cannot pick a lifestyle and tell two generations after us to live like that. It is impossible... The views of the young generation about life and the world is different than ours.” The youth was the core demographic involved with the 1979 revolution—forty years later, they may yet again rewrite history in Iran.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by Mahdifa33 through Wikimedia with a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.