When influential Grand Bazaar merchants in Tehran joined anti-regime protests 40 years ago, the Iranian revolution took a different trajectory; one that culminated in the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the unexpected takeover by Ayatollah Khomeini, who set the foundations for a theocratic rule in Iran. But not since 1979 had Grand Bazaar merchants displayed support for sporadic anti-government protests — that is until last week. Reliable information is hard to get, as the regime blocks access to the internet and controls what few foreign reporters are allowed to cover, but it is clear that angry protesters were able to shut down the Grand Bazaar last Sunday.
Protests broke out across the Islamic Republic late last year continuing into January, and at one point they marked the largest demonstrations since mass protests rocked the country following the 2009 disputed presidential elections. Confrontations with the police resulted in at least 25 deaths and thousands of arrests. A period of relative calm was soon breached when demonstrations flared up again in various provinces last week eventually reaching Tehran.
Protesters were denouncing worsening economic conditions highlighted by a collapse of the riyal; falling from 40,000 to 90,000 riyals to the dollar. But what started as anti-government movement soon turned into an indictment of the regime. Protesters were heard calling not only for the fall of President Hassan Rouhani, but the all-powerful Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran serving since 1989. Much-promised economic reforms were never implemented even after the international community signed the historic nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015 and lifted biting sanctions. Rouhani, who won a second term last year, could only repeat the same promises and slogans that portrayed him as a reformist leader. In reality, he proved to be weak and unable to challenge the hegemonic clergy that controlled the country’s resources and manipulated its politics.
The economy was already in trouble even before President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal last May. Now with Washington re-imposing economic sanctions and threatening to punish countries and companies that continue to deal with Iran, Rouhani’s mission to carry out fundamental reforms appears to be doomed.
But there is more to the current wave of protests than bad economic policies. Iranians are growing tired to seeing their country’s wealth squandered on regional adventures. What Khamenei regards as Iran’s holy mission in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon, his countrymen, mostly young Iranian men and women, see as a great waste that robs them of the opportunity to build a better future for themselves.
In the age of social media and the empowerment of individual citizens, it is hard for the regime to hide the fact that it is being run as a theocratic dictatorship that is corrupt and which intimidates, persecutes, tortures and kills activists and opponents. Young Iranians no longer subscribe to the ruling clergy’s dogmatic positions especially on the US, and to a lesser extent on Israel. They have little interest in the regime’s periodic display of missiles and military gear and certainly disagree with the fact that billions of hard-earned foreign currency goes into development of Iran’s arsenal and into financing mercenaries and proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
In fact young Iranians, who make up around 60 per cent of the country’s 80 million population, are no different from other youth around the world. They want good paying jobs, a decent lifestyle, ability to travel and do business and more freedom of expression. And Iranians are aware that their country is wealthy with huge economic potential far bigger than its $430 billion (Dh1.58 trillion) gross domestic product. But with unemployment rate of no less than 12 per cent and a spiralling double digit inflation rate of about 10 per cent — both figures will be increasing as a result of sanctions — the onus is felt mainly by Iran’s youth.
In 2009, Iran’s youth were the driving force behind the post-election protests. The authorities repulsed what was then called the Green Revolution and persecuted reformist politicians.
Geopolitical developments will hamper Rouhani’s attempt to stay in power and absorb popular anger. Khamenei appears to be in a state of denial; unwilling to listen to people’s demands. He might try to divert attention by dumping Rouhani altogether. But that is unlikely to calm the public. The US plan to isolate Tehran and pressure it into submission will succeed in fuelling further public protests. But change in Iran must come from within.
Whatever Washington has in mind, including regime change, it must avoid direct confrontation, primarily military, with Iran. And whatever happens in Iran this summer, it will signal the beginning of change in that country. The current popular movement has been building for some time and its strength comes from the fact that it is entirely spontaneous and leaderless. Any foreign association with the protests will discredit it and give the regime the excuse to stamp it out.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.