Protests Across Iran Prioritize Economic Improvements Over Political Change
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Mass protests in Iran are into their third week. So far, at least 21 people have died and more than 1,000 demonstrators have been arrested while protesting the state of Iran’s economy.
One of those arrested, 22-year-old Sina Qanbari, recently died in Evin prison in Tehran, the BBC reported. Two members of the Iranian Parliament said Qanbari killed himself.
The last major protests to engulf Iran occurred during the “Green Revolution” of 2009. Those protests were violently quashed by the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
Latest Iranian Protests Differ from Green Revolution of 2009
In 2009, the protests were more political in nature and centered in the country’s urban core. These latest demonstrations started in Iran’s second most populous city of Mashad, located in the northeast part of the country near the border to Turkmenistan. Protests against Tehran’s stagnant economic policies are occurring mostly in rural areas outside the major cities.
Another difference between the demonstrations in 2009 and now is the strong ethnic flavor of the current revolt. The demonstrators have cultural and language differences not typically found in Tehran.
The Demographics of the Protesters
To understand the protests, it is necessary to fully understand the demographics and the lack of economic opportunities in many of Iran’s border provinces where the protests began.
Many protests occurred in northwest areas that border Azerbaijan. These areas have a strong Azeri community, Iran’s largest ethnic minority. The Azeris speak Turkic. This area also has a large Kurdish population that harbors a strong resentment toward Tehran.
Ironically, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Azeri is an ethnic Azeri.
The southwest area of Iran has over three million predominantly Shiite Arabs, who seek greater autonomy from Tehran.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy reported that minority grievances have amplified Iran’s economic problems, which are worse in the provinces.
According to the Institute, “dozens of social media posts have shown protestors in certain provinces blaring ethno-nationalist demands and music, while chanting slogans in minority languages such as Azerbaijani, Kurdish and Arabic. A number of foreign organizations that advocate for the rights of ethnic minorities have issued statements in support of the protests, but it is not clear how representative they are of people on the ground.”
Accordingly, foreign observers should pay greater attention to the ethnic factor when they attempt to make assessments about future developments in Iran and gauge the regime’s stability.
Iranian Economy Fuels Protesters’ Rage against the Government
The Iranian economy, which is highly dependent on its oil sector, is a disaster. Inflation and unemployment rates are high. There is widespread income inequality as well.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power with a reformist agenda to improve the economy, but so far he has failed to do so.
Rouhani won reelection in May 2017, on the premise that the 2015 nuclear deal signed with the United States and other world powers would free the Iranian economy from crippling sanctions. Also, the infusion of billions of unfrozen Iranian assets held by the U.S. would unleash an economic boom.
After signing the Iran nuclear agreement, President Obama boasted how the freed-up revenue would benefit the Iranian economy. “And that’s why our best analysts expect the bulk of this revenue to go into spending that improves the economy and benefits the lives of the Iranian people,” he said.
Unfortunately for the Iranian people, the mullahs in Tehran used that infusion of capital to shore up Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy army in Lebanon. Hezbollah was nearly bankrupt from its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
The Islamic Republic also spent billions to spread its influence and engage in the morass of Iraqi politics. Tehran invested heavily in the Syrian civil war to shore up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to export its revolutionary theology throughout the Middle East.
Revenue from the Iran Nuclear Deal Goes to Fund Terror
Some of the revenue flowed to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force, which have been major players in Iraq and Syria. Many of the protestors have denounced the waste of the nation’s assets on regional Arab civil wars, even as basic food commodities have increased roughly 40 percent.
Just recently the country had to slaughter around 17 million chickens because of an outbreak of bird flu. The shortage of hens, combined with Rouhani’s austere budget, caused an enormous surge in egg prices and precipitated the protests.
The demonstrations now engulfing Iran could swell into a political revolution. Many Iranians see a two-tiered economic system in which the leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution live an opulent lifestyle and their children openly flaunt their wealth.
This disparity has not been lost on the masses. They witness this open display of wealth while they are harassed over a fallen headscarf or other “crimes against Islam.”
It is still too early to see where these protests will lead. The mullahs in Tehran are unlikely to change their revolutionary course or alter the present economic policies. It will be interesting to see what the future holds, especially if oil prices remain low. That would make a dire economic situation even worse.