Iran’s crisis deepens

First Lebanon, then Iraq – now Iran's own citizens are turning against the Iranian state.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics USA World

It happened quickly.

On Friday, without prior debate or warning, the Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani announced a petrol price hike of 50 per cent for the first 60 litres bought each month. Above 60 litres, Iranians were expected to pay even more. Rouhani said the money raised would be used to help Iran’s neediest citizens.

It seems few Iranians appreciated Rouhani’s altruism, given they were to pay for it. Within hours, the protests began, before quickly escalating over the weekend. By Sunday, the semi-state-authorised Fars news agency reported that the unrest had reached some 100 cities and towns. By Tuesday, Amnesty International was claiming to have credible reports that at least 106 protesters in 21 cities had been killed by Iranian security forces. Amnesty said: ‘The real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed.’

It is difficult to know what exactly is going on in any detail because the Iranian state has implemented a near total internet shutdown. Connectivity to the outside world is said to stand at four per cent of normal levels. Still, the eyewitness accounts and mobile-phone footage that have leaked out suggest the situation is as grim as Amnesty says. There is footage of security forces firing on protesters, of municipal buildings on fire, and talk of security forces refusing to return the bodies of those they have killed to their families. The state security apparatus has responded brutally. But there is little sign of the protests abating.

For supporters of America’s Middle East policy, the Iranian protests are being semi-celebrated. They are being packaged and presented as proof that Team Trump was right to ditch the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018 and re-impose heavy sanctions on Iran. In the anti-government slogans and burnt-out buildings, Trump’s fans can hear an endorsement of his policy of ‘maximum pressure’. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo even tweeted a message of solidarity to the protesters – ‘The United States is with you.’ Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi also made Trump’s case for the efficacy of ‘maximum pressure’ when he blamed the fuel-price rise and subsequent protests on the US sanctions regime.

And it’s true, to an extent. Since sanctions were reimposed last year, Iran’s economy has been pushed into a deep recession, with its economy set to contract by 9.5 per cent this year alone (according to the IMF). Inflation is now running at nearly 40 per cent, and youth unemployment (in a nation in which 40 per cent are under 25) is at 26 per cent. Many now live in acute poverty. Iran’s economic and social travails are not new, but they have clearly been exacerbated and entrenched by US sanctions.

But to blame – let alone praise – US sanctions for the protests sweeping Iran is to misunderstand the nature of the protests. Demonstrations in Iran against the government are neither exceptional nor unprecedented. Rather, this latest, admittedly large-scale eruption is merely the most recent manifestation of an increasingly pervasive anti-regime sentiment flowing beneath the surface of Iranian social life. Moreover, it has broken through before, as it did in late 2017 and early 2018 – that is, during the period of peace and stability supposedly engendered by the nuclear deal of 2015.

The protests of 2017-18 should be seen as a precursor to the current unrest. They were different to the Green Movement demonstrations in 2009, which were principally movements of the Tehran-based middle classes. The Green Movement focus was thoroughly reformist, centred as it was on the political candidature of Hossein Mousavi. Protesters were objecting not to the theocratic regime itself, but merely to its then presidential office holder, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The 2017-18 protests were different. They emerged, amid countless labour disputes, from the working-class, conservative cities and towns that the Islamic Republic liked to depict as its core constituency. They were organisationally diffuse, and their demands broad. But at the same time, they were uncompromising. Chants of ‘Death to the Dictator’ – a reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei – could be heard. As could the charges of endemic corruption and economic mismanagement levelled at the Iranian state.

To the extent that it’s possible to tell what is going on in Iran at the moment, today’s protests share much with that earlier outbreak nearly two years ago. As in 2018, there has been unrest in Tehran, but these demonstrations have erupted mainly in the provinces, while simultaneously penetrating deep into the country’s major cities, like Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz. And the principal actors, again, are precisely the working class on which the republic had long thought it could rely.

Likewise, the anti-cleric slogans, and the attacks on government buildings, religious schools and municipal offices, indicate the object of their ire: the Iranian state itself. And that is what separates this moment from that of 2009. Today’s protesters are taking aim at the Islamic Republic itself. The expansive, repressive Iranian state is appearing to increasing numbers as the problem – a corrupt, self-preserving force, in which a legion of rent-seeking officials line their own pockets, a judiciary serves the interests of powerful clerics, and a vast security apparatus enforces its near arbitrary rule.

US sanctions succeeded this growing political conflict within Iranian society. They didn’t create it. To the extent that they have played a role in bringing tensions to a head, they did so merely by forcing the Iranian state to do more of what it had long been doing anyway – passing the economic burden on to citizens.

Still, it is difficult to see where the protests might lead. The Iranian state, as a security and military apparatus, remains formidable. Yet at the same time, as a political and ideological project, the Islamic Republic is weakening. Iranian state interference in its near neighbours’ affairs has become the focus of intense protests in Lebanon and Iraq. And now the Iranian state has become a focus of intense protests within Iran itself.

One thing is for sure: the last thing Iranians need is any more ‘help’ from the US.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: YouTube.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Geoff Cox

21st November 2019 at 10:03 pm

It is a tragedy what has happened in Iran in the last 40 years. But you would be wrong to think that this was unexpected. Here is what Thomas Stevens had to say in 1885:

“Persia is without doubt the worst priest-ridden country in the world; the mollahs (sic) influence everything and everybody, from the monarch downward, to such an extent that no progress is possible. Barring outside interference, Persia will remain in its present wretched condition until the advent of a monarch with sufficient force of character to deliver the people from the incubus of their present power and influence: nothing short of a general massacre, however, will be likely to accomplish complete deliverance.”

Well the Shah tried with the usual mix of freedoms for some and political persecution (and execution) for others. I wonder on balance which version of statecraft the Iranians would prefer?

Lord Anubis

22nd November 2019 at 3:53 pm

Iran under the Shah wasn’t such a bad place, sure there was a bizarre mix of liberalism (Yes really) and secret Police (Savak, While Savak was undoubtedly responsible for numerous incidents of torture and execution. Their worst atrocities probably pale into insignificance compared to what happened in Iran after the 79 revolution.) the country was generally reasonably progressive for a middle eastern state at that time. You can google for photos of how Tehran looked in the 1960’s and it was a very different place to how it looks today. (Just like Kabul )

Interestingly the Shah was very much a technophile. He considered Oil to be far too valuable a commodity simply to be burned as a fuel, which is why it was under his regime that the Iranian Nuclear program was instituted. Not to create weapons but to conserve oil.

Ven Oods

21st November 2019 at 1:59 pm

40% inflation and mass youth unemployment, but still able to finance Islamist terror organisations worldwide.
How governments spend your money.

Dominic Straiton

21st November 2019 at 7:52 am

I understand from Mahyar Tousi that the Iranian regime has shut down the state controlled internet. Another reason not to vote Labour.

Michael Lynch

21st November 2019 at 11:30 am

Hear, hear.

H McLean

21st November 2019 at 12:29 am

See what happens when the government has total control of the internet, Labour supporters? Hopefully Iran finally gets the revolution it deserves and the people there are able to live freely. Unfortunately, we’ve know how far the religious fanatics are willing to go to when their power is challenged.

Jim Lawrie

21st November 2019 at 10:21 am

In a country whose economy is based on franchises and middlemen, referred to as the bazaar, a percentage of the price hike will go to them, and their mullah mates, via the many religious charities that soak up 20% of GDP. The Iranian people know this. The Military account for a greater percentage of the economy. Sanctions beget autarky, furthering the religious state’s practical and propaganda grip on the economy, but at the same time reducing real economic development.
Their mistrust of their own people has resulted in a ruling and professional class that is not replacing itself. As it ages and weakens, crackdowns and authoritarianism are increasingly its main props. As people see they have no economic freedom, or control of or benefit from their own economic activity, so they will not be motivated to do anything, and are increasingly dependent on a failing state.
China was in a similar position thirty years ago, but, not hidebound by religious dogma, found a way to change things. They are still, however, in the grip of The Party, who could yet destroy everything. The biggest buyer of Iranian oil, is, rather ironically, China.

Iran’s educated, low cost labour force cannot be tapped into by the regime, who, citing religious reasons, refuse to allow the foreign investment that could achieve this.

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