Anti-government protests have erupted in several cities across Iran, including the conservative northeastern town of Mashhad. Based on the photographs and reports spreading through social media outlets on Dec. 28, the crowds attending the demonstrations appear to number in the hundreds or low thousands. But the unrest has grown severe enough that security forces reportedly used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters.
Details about the size, scope and organization of the demonstrations — all critical factors to a protest wishing to achieve its political objectives — are scarce. Nevertheless, today's events are notable for two reasons: the message they are intended to convey and their location in Iran's heartland.
A Foreign Policy With Domestic Consequences
Fueling the protests is popular dissatisfaction with the government in Tehran and with the country's deteriorating economic circumstances. Videos captured chants including "Death to Rouhani" and "Death to the Dictator," as well as complaints of rising prices in staple goods and corruption among officials. Protesters also criticized the administration for focusing too much on problems abroad, such as Syria's civil war, instead of pressing challenges at home.
Domestic tension stemming from the foundering economy and graft is nothing new in Iran. In fact, it became a central issue in this year's presidential election. Despite President Hassan Rouhani's success in freeing up Iranian exports and lifting barriers to foreign investment by negotiating a nuclear deal with the West in 2015, Iran's economy still struggles with high unemployment levels, particularly among the country's large population of youths. Moreover, much of the foreign investment Rouhani promised to voters has yet to materialize. U.S. President Donald Trump's decision in October not to recertify the nuclear deal and his subsequent unveiling of a holistic strategy for countering Iranian ambitions in the Middle East has muted potential investors' interest in the country.
The protesters' opposition to the government's foreign policy shows the ramifications that Tehran's activities abroad can have back home — especially when it comes to the nuclear deal and Iran's regional scuffles with its greatest nearby rival, Saudi Arabia. Indeed, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive foreign and economic policies, coupled with his determined pursuit of a nuclear weapons program, led to the Green Movement protests of 2009 and, a few years later, crippling Western sanctions against the Iranian economy.
Location, Location, Location
The outbreak of protests beyond the country's common sites of unrest is noteworthy, too. Iran's marginalized populations — the Kurds in the northwest, the Ahvaz in the southwest and the Baluch in the southeast, to name a few — often stage demonstrations. Separatist groups from these populations even launch occasional attacks. But the Dec. 28 protests took place in cities closer to Iran's core population centers. Among them was Mashhad, a stronghold for political conservatives and the home of the Shrine of Imam Reza, one of the holiest sites in Shiism that is administered by hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi. Though many of the city's conservative clerics oppose Rouhani's policies, and disparaging remarks on the health of the Iranian economy are common in Friday prayers, it isn't clear whether they lent any support to the protests.
It's possible that today's demonstrations will prove to be an isolated incident, and Iranian officials will quickly intervene if the unrest spreads to other cities. But whether new protests on the same issues spring up and spread across class, geographic and demographic lines — much as the Green Movement demonstrations did in 2009 — in the future will bear watching. Though Iran has the ability to violently crack down on protests if necessary, the country is prone to unrest that can effect sweeping political change. Born of revolution itself, the modern Islamic Republic is all too aware of the dangerous precedent with which it must now contend.