Iran’s Protests: Time to Reform

The protests in Iran seem to have died down, but if Iranian leaders fail to recognize that the status quo has become untenable and major reforms are unavoidable, they are only buying time until the next uprising, which could lead to greater instability.

It is easy for the leadership in Tehran to dismiss the outpouring of popular ire over economic and political stagnation. The latest protests were leaderless, too amorphous, too scattered, too provincial, and too shallow. Above all, they lacked a unifying objective. Protesters knew what they did not want, but differed on what they wanted. Slogans ranged from “death to inflation” to “death to embezzlers” to “death to the dictator” and “give up on Syria! Think of us”.

Conversely, the Islamic Republic remains too resilient, its leadership’s resolve to cling to power too strong, the capacity of its parallel security organizations and paramilitary squads for coercion too fearsome, and its control over the airwaves and cyber arena too inviolable.

The three million demonstrators who marched silently on the streets of Tehran on June 15, 2009 shook the political system to its core, but failed to dislodge it. Despite Iran’s practiced capacity to surprise, it was naïve to believe that tens of thousands of demonstrators, mainly outside the capital, could bring the current order to its knees in 2018.

Long-standing Grievances

The story of what transpired on December 28th, 2017, in Mashhad, the site of the first demonstration and supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s hometown, remains to be told. Its trigger was disgruntlement over economic malaise, endemic corruption and glaring income inequalities, but some of president Hassan Rouhani’s hardline rivals might have poured fuel on the fire – that they initially loudly welcomed the protests suggests this possibility. But who/what lurked in the shadows is not as important as what was in plain sight.

In 90 percent of more than 80 towns and cities that experienced unrest, riots already had occurred in the past six months over basic socio-economic issues: from unpaid wages to lost deposits and environmental disasters. Dashed expectations of rapid economic recovery after the 2015 nuclear deal, compounded by unbreathable smog that had descended on several metropolitan areas, a chain of earthquakes and their mismanaged aftermath, and an austerity budget hiking prices, and slashing subsidies, while granting more perks to religious and military institutions – these together made for a perfect storm.

The state’s response, however, was atypical as security forces refrained from resorting quickly to brute force – at least by their own standards. The restraint might have been because most of the protesters seemed to be the system’s own constituents – the more pious, lower-income, blue-collar workers from the country’s peripheries. It might also have stemmed from the leadership’s reluctance to alienate human-rights conscious Europeans, on whom Tehran counts for salvaging the nuclear deal in the face of president Donald Trump’s hostility towards it; or from a calculation that violence could play into the hands of those who are seeking to destabilize Iran, and thus roll back its gains in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Many outsiders were projecting their hopes onto this Iranian drama, but in the end, they were mere spectators. The question is what Iranians will do next.

A History of Reluctance

Rouhani has struck the right tone: admitting that the ruling elite is out of touch, recognizing people’s right to protest, noting that their dissent stemmed not just from economic malaise, and emphasizing that they seek a more open society and polity. Ayatollah Khamenei, however, has blamed the protests on a triangle of Iran’s enemies: the U.S. and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iranian exiled dissidents.

What is not clear is whether the leadership can accept a civic culture in which peaceful protests are tolerated and deemed normal, and whether it can evolve.

Past patterns, especially the record of Rouhani’s predecessors, are not promising. In the face of popular and/or elite wrath at their reforms, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (after the protests of the early 1990s) and Mohammad Khatami (after the 1999 student uprising) became more risk-averse and pursued only superficial change.

Yet marching in circles this time potentially could bring the country to the brink. Its predicaments, from chronic unemployment (hovering around 30 percent for the educated youth) to its bankrupt financial system and its environmental challenges can neither be ignored nor resolved using the failed policies of the past. After years of sanctions and economic mismanagement, the unemployed and disgruntled Iranian youth have less to lose, which means they may be more prepared to throw caution to the wind and resort to violence.

There is still a significant constituency, however, who while sympathizing with the popular grievances, fears the chaos that will come with radical change. The 1979 revolution’s memory and the Arab uprisings’ experience have been instructive for the large, and increasingly mature Iranian middle class, which has sought reforms for nearly 20 years. The hashtag “we will not become Syria” was trending among middle-class Iranians.

Managing Reform

Ayatollah Khamenei has the authority to drive change, but is nearing 80 and almost certainly is not eager for fundamental reforms. Denouncing this “sedition” as a foreign conspiracy is more familiar ground, and – to him – less risky. For his part, Rouhani’s ambition to succeed the leader might stop him from forcefully pushing for change and instead invest in the longer term. Among the political and military elite, there is also strong vested interest in preserving the status quo.

But by failing to allow gradual evolution, Iran’s leaders, themselves former revolutionaries, could be making instability more likely in a country that experienced two major revolutions in the past century (the constitutional revolution in 1906 and the Islamic revolution in 1979). At some stage, events might spiral out of control.

Iran’s recent history offers constructive lessons.

First, it might get too late too soon for the system to absorb the shock. The Shah realized in the late 1970s that there was a need for change. But the reforms he implemented were tardy and timid. Second, ill-conceived action could be worse than inaction. In 1989, shortly before his death and cognizant of the deadlock in the system’s power structure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini started a process to amend the constitution and abolish the prime minister’s office. In the end, however, that change bifurcated the political system and created more, not less, friction between the system’s theocratic and republican institutions.

Bearing these precedents in mind, President Rouhani should turn the crisis into an opportunity, pivoting from the protesters’ target to their champion for change. He should secure Ayatollah Khamenei’s consent and submit to parliament a package of major reforms, including constitutional amendments that would empower elected institutions and a timetable for implementing them. Without such bold measures, the major surgery that the Iranian president admits the country’s economy is in need of simply will not happen. A fragile garrison state is certainly not a legacy Ayatollah Khamenei should be satisfied with.

The recent Iranian protests might not augur deep change, as the country’s leaders may not be prepared to relinquish their old ways. But without addressing head-on the drivers of the protests and pursuing popular reform, they are only buying time until the next standoff between the state and the society.

Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran.

Originally published in Open Democracy

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