You may have noticed recently that Iran has been in the news on a few fronts, in particular regarding two issues: protests gripping the country and the fate and future of the nuclear deal. Let’s discuss a few quick points regarding the protests below. (I’m in an airport currently, so I’ll call this new post category “Terminal Journal”.)
I was in Morocco in June 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second election for the Iranian presidency, in an election marred by fraud and corruption. Protestors took to the streets in opposition to the election results in what was known as the “Green Revolution”, but they were met with violence from the regime that ultimately killed dozens of protestors, arrested thousands, and silenced the opposition. It was remarkable seeing the coverage on Arab news stations in support of the Iranian protestors (despite the complicated relationship between Arab countries and Iran).
Now we have seen protests rise up again, which seemingly came out of nowhere (unless your Ray Takeyh, who seems to have predicted it: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-defeat-the-islamic-republic-1507758880). But what are they about? If you’re Donald Trump, you think it is about a “terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration.” But there’s more to it than that.
What are the protests about? At the heart of the matter, they are over economics. Basic goods for daily life, the same things you and I would disparage over in similar circumstances. According to Vox, prices of basic goods in Iran have risen over 40% over the last year. A decline in the supply of chickens has caused egg prices to almost double. Economic growth has been slow. In this realm, maybe Trump has a slight point, in that the nuclear deal, from Iran’s point of view, was supposed to bring a wave of investment to the country, which would in-turn spur economic growth and development. But, Iran has had economic difficulties for some time, and even with the influx of foreign investors, it cannot be expected to turn around a struggling economy in two years. Corruption is common in the country, as well as an antiquated bureaucracy that slows growth. Unemployment rests at over 12% and rising. But, you’re not hearing “death to America” and “calls for support for terrorism” as some would make you think. These are economic protests, pure and simple.
Are they likely to succeed? If the definition of success is overthrowing the regime or resulting in a dramatic economic shift, then observers will be disappointed. The capital city of Tehran has had lower participation in the protests compared to other cities throughout the Islamic Republic. Change is generally slow anyway, and the regime’s grip on power is deep and strong. On top of that, the existence of the regime is not at the heart of the protests anyways. But, the regime is likely to take note. Similar to the Saudi government’s focus on redefining the Saudi social contract and adapting to the changing international environment in the 21st century (a topic for a future post), Iran’s leaders are also likely taking note on account for what could be implemented in preventing future protests and improving economic conditions.
The Iranian government needs to find methods to greatly improve economic performance for its citizens across many indicators. They have a strong labor force, an educated public, and the resources to do so. They have ties with important trading partners and have worked to try to improve their international reputation. The people have elected leaders who have attempted economic programs (Rouhani included). But, ideas and rhetoric need to be turned to action and results for the Iranian people before the dilemma worsens.
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