“We are Aryans, we don’t worship Arabs” and “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon; I sacrifice my life for Iran” were just two of the bigoted and radical slogans voiced by Iran’s latest protest movement, which emerged suddenly last Thursday. They underline the uglier side of the protests and riots which have gripped the country’s provincial towns.
The protests began in the north-east city of Mashhad late last week, ostensibly to voice opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s economic policies. In keeping with longstanding Iranian political culture, though, parochial grievances quickly mushroomed into expansive political demands.
Indeed, as the protests spread across the country, protestors (who were, in some cases, also rioters) decried practically everything to do with the ruling establishment, ranging from its economic mismanagement and corruption to its foreign policy; hence the Gaza-Lebanon slogan.
Predictably, a mountain of analysis has already been produced on the putative causes and significance of the protests. Most analysts have used the previous (and much larger) protests of 2009, which unfolded in the wake of a disputed presidential election, as a comparative starting point for their deliberation. The universal conclusion appears to be that the latest protests are fundamentally different in so far as they are disorganised, leaderless and taking place in obscure provincial towns as opposed to the capital city and other major urban centres.
I am looking at two short- to medium-term consequences of the protests, which strike a significant blow to Iranian prestige and raise the prospect of a prolonged period of instability. The longer-term repercussion is a heightened risk of external war as the Islamic Republic struggles to rebuild national cohesion.
A bastion of stability?
First and foremost, in their current form and limited scale these protests do not pose an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Going back to the comparison with 2009, that year’s demonstrations posed a serious political risk inasmuch as they represented an intra-establishment conflict with the potential to produce dangerous levels of fragmentation.
By contrast, the latest protests have nothing do with Iran’s complex political scene, and to that extent even the reformists have completely disowned them. Moreover, in ideological terms the protests can best be described as convoluted. The protestors appear to be deeply confused, as in one breath they shout “death to the dictator” whilst in the next they glorify Reza Shah, who was the founder of modern dictatorship in Iran.
This misplaced nostalgia is exacerbated by the protestors’ radicalism and extremism, as demonstrated by their breach of every red line set down by the establishment. In protests and riots ranging in geographical terms from Bandar Abbas in the south to Shahin Shahr in the centre and Tuyserkan in the west, angry protestors — mostly young males in their teens and early 20s — shouted slogans calling for the overthrow of the establishment whilst burning portraits of Iranian leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.
This level of radicalism and extremism is unprecedented and speaks to the deep discontent in Iran’s provincial areas as a result of years, and in some cases decades, of economic mismanagement. Whilst there have been protests and rioting in provincial centres and towns before, notably in Mashhad in 1992 and Islamshahr in 1995, as far as we know these violent protests (which occurred before the age of social media) did not descend into anti-establishment riots.
Due to their wide-ranging occurrence and radicalism, the latest incidents pose a major problem for the Islamic Republic in that they punch a hole in Iran’s carefully cultivated image of a relatively stable and secure country in a notoriously turbulent region. Indeed, projecting an image of security and stability is central to the Islamic Republic’s national security discourse. Worryingly for the Iranian security establishment, there is every indication that this reputational problem is not going to go away. Whilst the protests appear to have died down for now, taking into account the country’s deep economic malaise they could resurface at any point.
As stated earlier, these protest and riots do not pose an existential threat to the Islamic Republic, even if they occur on a bigger scale. For all its flaws, the Islamic Republic is a deeply institutionalised system with multiple centres of power.
The system’s dense institutional complexity aside, the ruling clerics can take comfort from the fact that they are shielded by three independent, yet interconnected, defensive rings. The first and most important is a highly specialised, well-trained and motivated security apparatus.
What’s more, the Islamic Republic can count on a substantial loyal following. This is not a reference to the system’s social base (which is founded on a socio-economic logic) but people who support it for ideological or emotional reasons. Finally, beyond its borders the Islamic Republic has multiple centres of support across the region, comprised of both entire communities and organised groups in places such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and even eastern Saudi Arabia.
In view of Iran’s ideological profile and its oppositional and balancing role in the region, the fall of the Islamic Republic would represent the biggest geopolitical event of the 21st century. There is little wonder that the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia seek regime change in Iran, although they cannot achieve such an outcome.
The danger of foreign intervention in any future political instability in Iran is that it will result in massive polarisation and, potentially, civil war. If the ruling clerics detect a genuine or imminent existential threat they will defer to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and their army of supporters to push back against their enemies, armed or otherwise.
A more likely scenario is external conflict, as an embattled Iran seeks to regain national unity. Throughout 2017 Iran was relatively restrained in the face of repeated Saudi and Israeli provocation. This may change, however, as internal stress can have a marked impact on Iran’s strategic calculus, resulting in a more aggressive attitude and posture.
In terms of pushing for regime change, and reference to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, it is definitely a case of be careful what you wish for.