A relatively minor street protest that started in the city of Mashad on December 28, quickly spread to dozens of cities across the country. While the Mashad event was meant to be a protest against President Rouhani and ostensibly underwritten by his powerful political rivals in that city, neither the location no the slogans remained as planned. Over 80 cities experienced demonstrations and rioting with wide ranging slogans that condemned Iran’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon, protested economic hardship, praised the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and chanted death to Islamic Republic and the Supreme leader.
The spontaneity, the geographic diversity of the protest and most notably the age and class affiliation of the protestors took many by surprise. In stark contrast with the Green Movement protests of 2009, these protests had no obvious leadership or movement affiliation. Furthermore unlike 2009 when the bulk of the uprising took place in northern part of Tehran with mostly middle to upper middle class protestors, these protests spread to smaller cities and provincial towns, with the bulk of the protestors belonging to the lower middle income part of the population.
Political groups of all stripes were quick to pinpoint the reasons behind the protests and predict its direction. Hardliners pointed the fingers at American and Israeli intelligence, the opposition Mujahedin-e-Kalgh and the Saudis. Others looked to economic deprivation, income inequality, corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, Rouhani’s new austerity budget, the banking crisis, drought and pollution, and so on and on. A few political groups in the diaspora enthusiastically declared the events as the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic and advised their followers to “ start packing their suitcases”. In reality, the grievances varied along a wide spectrum. Individual demonstrators seemed unified not for any specific reason but their common belief that all ills, one way or another were the fault of their government. By and large, the demonstrations seemed to be spontaneous and self motivated but it is hard to rule out the possibility that some special interests may also have stimulated the events.
The spontaneous movement also gave women an opportunity to to air their frustration over hijab. This is a cause shared by millions of women who have always resented the imposition of a mandatory Islamic dress code, have persistently defied the regime on the issue over the years and now took advantage of the protesting climate to air their demand. A brave woman removed her hijab, put a white scarf on a stick and stood on a utility box on Tehran’s Enghelab Avenue ( Revolution Avenue). She was later arrested, released, gained the title of “ the daughter of revolution ” giving birth to a new movement and its symbolic form of protest.
The fundamental questions remain:
*What makes people take to the streets in defiance of the authorities risking injury, death, arrest and imprisonment?
*Is the uprising of December 28 a precursor to a wider movement culminating to a revolution that overthrows the Islamic republic or just a warning shot across the bow of the state?
While many Iranians, inside and outside of the country reject the very essence of the Islamic republic and favor change, a significant majority are in favor of a peaceful transition to a free and more equitable society with better economic conditions.
There are four reason why not to expect any new Iranian revolution:
1-Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
Aside from the heavy toll on lives and living standards, revolutions are also prone to unpredictable outcomes. The Iranian revolution of 1979, an epic event still fresh in the minds of Iranians ended with the establishment of a theocracy, an outcome which was unanticipated and vehemently contested by many people and groups that supported the revolution. Secular democratic groups of various tendencies joined forces with the religious leadership in opposition to the Shah only later to be marginalized, imprisoned, exiled or executed in the hands of the newly established government. The Iran-Iraq war which was started by Saddam on the perception of a power vacuums in Tehran brought the country eight years of extreme hardship and over half a million dead and wounded.
For those who do not remember 1979, the Arab Spring of 2010-2011 has produced another example of costly and unpredictable revolutions. With the exception of Tunisia, the Arab spring has only brought the region civil wars, misery, ISIS, and the replacement of one dictator with another.
2-The chances for success are slim
Revolutions often fail because, like the perfect storm, many elements must fall into place before they succeed. An appropriate point of reference for the recent events is the Iranian revolution of 1979. Almost forty years ago, it was Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership that managed to build a broad based coalition and utilized the network of mosques to rule the streets. There is no such leadership in Iran today. Further, in contrast to 1978-79, when the Shah lacked either an adequate security apparatus or the political will to exercise force to quell the uprising, the Islamic republic now has both (See the forceful regime response to the events of 2009 and how it controlled the recent demonstrations with relative ease.)
3-The tendency to rally around the state in the face of foreign threats.
Witnessing externally induced turmoil in Iraq, civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Libya and the hostility of the United States, especially under the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iranians are extremely worried about a weakened central government. The fear of a Syria-zation of Iran, has give serious pause to the population about regime change and its possible consequences.
4-A two pronged approach to force change
Finally, revolutions are typically associated with societies where there are no democratic processes in place to express political demands. Iran is what may be called a flawed democracy. It is a democracy because people can vote and their vote is counted. It is flawed because a large part of the government is unelected, operates under opaque circumstances and wields enormous power over the affairs of the state, including the entire electoral processes.
Not surprisingly, demonstrations, riots and other forms of civil disobedience occur when lawful political processes fail to advance popular demand. The December-January demonstrations and riots took place only a few months after people re-elected the moderate president Rouhani and sent many moderate representatives to the parliament and municipal councils. Yet, the moderate president has been unable to bring about the reforms expected by people that voted for him.
Because of the dual nature of the Islamic Republic – power from God and power from the people – the clerical regime in Tehran is also more inclined to be responsive to the demands of the population. This is even more so after the recent protests where the bulk of the participants belonged to social groups considered the grass root support for the clerical regime and the foundation of the Islamic Republic. Recent statements from some of the most hardline members of the regime in Iran such as Ayatollah Jannati, the powerful head of the unelected Guardian Council and a well known hardliner, acknowledged the plight of the demonstrators, their economic hardships and their right to voice their grievances.
This dynamic nature of Iranian politics, the give and take between the state and the people is likely to be the name of the game in the near future-voting for a more responsive government through polls and pressuring the government on the streets. At this junctures, revolution and regime change is not in the cards.
Moderate Rouhani has aptly taken advantage of the recent events to press the hardline centers of power for concessions. He has cautioned them to “heed people’s demand before it is too late”. He is urging the conservative judiciary to respect freedom of expression and human rights and has urged the Revolutionary Guards and regime connected economic conglomerates to divest their economic holdings and fight nepotism, rent seeking and corruption. This is a dynamic tug of war that is likely to continue for sometime tending towards secularism and moderation.