by Ghoncheh Tazmini
Referring to Iran’s recent protests over the fuel price hike, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inveighed that the violence was part of a ‘very dangerous conspiracy’ led by foreign agitators. Subversive elements, he argued, had failed to engineer a crisis despite the torching of 731 banks and 140 public institutions, according to Interior Ministry estimates.
In video footage, an eye witness described the scenes in Shahrake Taleghani, a poor suburb in the south-western port city of Bandar Mahshahr. He explained how a major thoroughfare was obstructed with burnt tires, glass, rocks and metal, stalling and derailing traffic. One video shows masked rioters armed with machine guns, while another [distressing] video shows an axe-wielding rioter charging at police forces only to be shot down minutes later. Iranian authorities claimed that vulnerable targets – military posts, oil tanks and refineries – had been singled out by ‘ringleaders’ affiliated with the former Pahlavi regime and Western intelligence agencies.
Against this backdrop, most narratives focus on the state’s response to the protests, by drawing attention to the internet blackout, the brutality of security forces, and the number of casualties and arrests. In these accounts, the Iran protests are linked to the rallies in Lebanon and Iraq where demonstrators expressed anti-Iran sentiments alongside domestic grievances. With the Iranian state the focal point of popular rage, mainstream media was quick to interpret events as portending the demise of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian protests were said to have been part of this regional wave of unrest, spurring speculation that the regime was on its last legs and that President Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign had finally borne fruit.
Clinging to simplified narratives, the focus of mainstream media falls squarely on the anti-government attributes of the Iran protests. Op-eds such as: ‘Iran’s Protests Are Not Just About Gas Prices’ refer to the ‘explicit anti-regime tone’ of the rallies. Relying on a ‘study’ that can hardly be praised for methodological rigour (‘the geographic distribution of the protests offers a clue as to just what has happened’), the article claims that the protests are motivated by ‘more than acute economic pain’ and that they have activated ‘deeper, pre-existing dissatisfactions with the Islamic Republic as a whole.’
Indeed, much of the focus of public discourse is on the collapse of the regime rather than on the Iranian people whose agency is misappropriated each time we focus on international agendas and priorities. We listen to the voices of the Iranian people in order to understand what prompted them to take to the streets.
The fuel subsidy removal and the 50 percent price hike were not simply a ‘kneejerk’ reaction to the pressure of international sanctions on the Iranian budget. These measures were grounded in fiscal policy recommendations that the International Monetary Fund issued in its 2018 Article IV consultations. The Supreme Leader endorsed the principles behind the policy, although he emphasised that the particularities were within the purview of experts, or the ‘kar shenas’.
The real issue according to the words of several peaceful protestors that were interviewed in the program, ‘Poshteh Pardeyeh Rahpeymani e Tehran’ (‘Behind the Scenes of Tehran’s Demonstrations’), was the method of delivery of the price hike. Referring to inflation and corruption, one protestor, a war veteran, linked popular outrage to the original revolutionary goals: ‘Creating a revolution is easy, maintaining it is difficult’. He added, ‘The revolution belongs to the “mostazafin” (the “oppressed and the ‘downtrodden”) and not entrepreneurs…we are the “mostazafin” of this country.’
Another protestor reasoned: ‘Our problem is not the price of fuel; our problem is social justice.’ He added, ‘That one stratum lives under the poverty line and that one lives in privilege is not right.’ Another protestor explained, ‘I have one phrase to tell the President [Hassan Rouhani]: you must respond to the needs of the people. Asked by the reporter if he was grateful to President Rouhani, he answered with an unequivocal, ‘no’. One demonstrator explained that what was required was ‘aamadeh saazi’ – preparation or groundwork – for the implementation of such a potentially disruptive policy. ‘Why were the people not consulted’, he asked. ‘I am not here to burn down banks, but I am here to peacefully convey my demands. People like their revolution, their Supreme Leader, their country…we support our Supreme Leader and that is why we are here’, he maintained.
These concerns were echoed in an audio clip by a senior cleric and preacher from the Supreme Leader’s ‘House of Leadership’ (Beit-e Rahbari). Hojjatolislam Masoud Ali argues that fuel subsidies had led to smuggling and resale. He explained that between 20 to 30 million litres of gasoline is sold daily on the black market to circumjacent countries. Thus, fuel reform, he argues, was imperative, however he asks why the measures were delivered in such a ruthless manner? He argues that the real ‘traitors’ were those that did not advise the government about the fair delivery of such a disruptive measure, and that this act amounted to an ‘insult’ to the Iranian people.
While the protests brought together an eclectic mix of concerns, it was the fact that the Rouhani government had launched the fuel price hike so unceremoniously that hit a nerve. In this capacity, the Iranian government digressed from the original revolutionary goals, which were predicated on social and economic justice. Iran may have legitimate reasons as to why it has not been able to respond as effectively as it should, given the pressure of sanctions, the threats of regime change, and military confrontation. However, just as it has developed creative survival strategies such as, ‘strategic patience’ or ‘maximum resistance’, in order to counter Trump’s ‘maximum pressure campaign’, the Iranian government needs to develop institutions and political procedures for mitigating and channelling grievances. The failure to do so results in what we have seen during this recent bout of protests: violence, casualties, and a total internet blackout, all of which have only served to lower national morale and to feed into the hands of Iran’s ‘enemies’.
The protest dynamics indicate that mass mobilisation is poorly managed – by both state and society. What we have is a broader, permanent clash between societal aspirations and government responsiveness. The Iranian state needs to generate new forms of political coordination and engagement, and a new national dialogue. What we can take away from these protests is that Iran’s ‘permanent’ revolution, as an historical cycle, is far from coming to an end.
This piece is the first in a 2-part series on the latest round of protests in Iran. Read the second part here.
Ghoncheh Tazmini is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. Formerly an Associate Member at the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS, where she was Iran Heritage Foundation Fellow, Ghoncheh conducts research on Iran-related themes as a British Academy grant-holder. She is currently researching Iranian-Russian alignment in the Middle East. She tweets at @GTazmini