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The Voices of Discontent in Iran Crank Up the Volume, to a Point

5 MINS READJan 2, 2018 | 20:31 GMT
Students protest at the University of Tehran
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Students protest at the University of Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017 in one of at least 80 demonstrations throughout Iran.

Forecast Update

In Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast, we said that despite increased pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia against Iran, the country's economic concerns at home would keep Iran from being the first to walk away from its nuclear deal with the West. The widespread protests against Iran grew out of the country's economic struggles and are a not-so-subtle reminder to the current government that Iran's stability starts at home.

Protests across Iran continue for the sixth consecutive day as the government in Tehran increases its efforts to shut them down. At this point, demonstrations have emerged in at least 80 cities, and 22 people have been killed in sporadic clashes between protesters and police officers. The government has arrested more than 450 people in Tehran alone, and President Hassan Rouhani made clear in his statements over the weekend that protesters gathering illegally would be punished.

Originally staged to express economic grievances, the gatherings across Iran have broadened in scope to reject the country's political status quo. However, despite their growth turn toward violence over the weekend, the protests will need to attract support from several different strata of Iranian society if they are to continue growing. Thus far, they do not appear organized enough to turn into a threat big enough to challenge the government.

Not the Revolution's Coda

Mainstream media reports have compared the protests to those of the 2009 Green Movement, and indeed, the geographical expansion of the demonstrations suggests they are the most widespread to take place since that event. But though the current protests are widespread, they are also small and easily dispersed, lacking the coordination, leadership and organization needed to withstand a security crackdown.

The Green Movement protests, which followed Iran's controversial 2009 presidential election, gained support from middle- and upper-middle class Iranians in urban population centers. Moreover, the movement rallied around popular leaders such as Iran's reformist leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi — and even more moderate figures such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These factors gave the Green Movement a powerful base and the structural support needed to sustain itself.

By contrast, Iran's Interior Ministry has stated that more than 90 percent of the current protesters are under the age of 25, and based on social media accounts, most of them appear to be from lower classes and to reside in the country's rural areas rather than in core urban centers. (Though there have been a few demonstrations in Tehran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's Sarallah Base that typically handles security around Tehran has not been deployed, though it remains at the ready.)

Furthermore, the protests lack any clear political allies. The reformists and moderates dominate the political scene in the Tehran municipal government, the Iranian parliament and the elected parts of the federal government and have nothing to gain from publicly backing a protest movement right now. Some have speculated that in an attempt to court rural youths, Iran's hardliners initially supported the protests, which started off aimed at Rouhani. But the hardliners can't risk any continued endorsement now that the demonstrators are targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the government at large, with some even advocating a return to monarchy. At the moment there is simply no obvious political group that could benefit from directly expressing support for the protests. It is possible that leadership could emerge that would allow the demonstrations to coalesce into a lasting movement, but if it doesn't they are likely to die down.

The Reverberations of Dissatisfaction

What may be most important to track in the protests' aftermath is how Iran's various political camps use the turmoil for their own political advantage — which they are already moving to do. Rouhani and his allies have said that the protesters have legitimate concerns, and they may try to use the demonstrations to urge more political openness within the current system. Conversely, Iran's hardliners will likely point to them as proof that Rouhani's economic policies have failed. 

Internationally the responses by Iran's adversaries — both in the West and regionally — have been swift. Western leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have called for Iran to allow for peaceful protests. Moreover, many of the protests' initial social media hashtags have been geo-tagged as coming from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Europe and the United States. And given the increased pressure that the White House, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been trying to put on the Iranian government, these governments may well be using technology to support the protest movement.

Iran has, unsurprisingly, been working to undermine the protesters practically and ideologically. Tehran has accused various outside powers of being behind the protest movements to damage their credibility; Iranian state-linked media has been quick to point out that many of the initial wave of tweets came from overseas, presenting data saying that of the 31,500 tweets about the protests over one 24-hour period, only 21 percent came from Iran. Furthermore, there have been consistent reports of internet outages and the blocking or disruption of social media apps such as Telegram, as authorities try to limit communication among protesters.

As the protests approach the one-week mark, Iran's government will use any means necessary to ensure that they do not get further out of hand, cracking down more violently or even sending in infiltrators to shift the protests' message. But though the current demonstrators will struggle to gain the support they need to withstand such a response, their grievances will remain after the current gatherings are dispersed. And that means a more organized voice could eventually emerge to take advantage of popular discontent.

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