Rumbles of discontent, erupting into public protests, are nothing new in Iran. They predate the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which swept the Shah from the throne and Ayatollah Khomeini into power. Today, among the slogans being chanted in the mass demonstrations bursting out all over Iran and threatening the very stability of the regime, are: “Reza Shah, God bless your soul.” In short, the regime of the ayatollahs has long outlived its honeymoon period.
During 2017 it was clear that President Sayyed Hassan Rouhani had been unable to keep most of his promises to the Iranian electorate – namely, to create new jobs, to implement economic reforms and to improve human rights. As a result, at the end of the year unrest broke out across the country.
By January 2018 Iran was in turmoil. Rallies and street protests were erupting throughout the nation. At first they centred on the worsening economic situation, and the ever-rising food and commodity prices. This soon morphed into opposition to the regime in general and the Supreme Leader in particular. Especial dissent was voiced against the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures were seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
Early in February 2018 Iran tested a ballistic missile, claiming that to do so was not in contravention of its nuclear deal, but Washington imposed sanctions on more than two dozen individuals and companies involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for the country. So even before Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018, Iranians’ confidence in their government had been very largely eroded. The effect of the US withdrawal, and the announcement of further US sanctions set to hit in August, has been devastating. The Iranian rial is sinking fast against the dollar: 42,890 rials could buy a dollar at the end of 2017. Now the dollar is worth 90,000 rials.
The effect on normal household budgets is catastrophic. The government has prohibited the import of over 1,400 items, and Iranians are discouraged from buying dollars and travelling abroad. Inevitably, the panic generated by this advice has pushed civilians into purchasing more dollars, more gold, and for anyone who could afford it, real estate, causing housing prices to peak. On Monday, June 25 Tehran’s grand bazaar was shut down as merchants joined street protests and thousands defied the riot police trying to quell the rebellion. Other big cities joined Tehran. Protesters carried signs like “Leave Syria alone, think of us.” Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the Houthis and Hamas – all proxies used by the regime − were attacked by the slogan boards. Worse, from the regime’s point of view, were the prominently displayed slogans: “Death to the dictator.”
So far the regime has been defiant, declaring that it will not “give in to US pressure.” Meanwhile Iran’s hardliners, especially the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC), have used the political turmoil to criticize Rouhani for negotiating a deal with the West in the first place. Which leads some commentators to warn western governments against pursuing regime change in Iran, because the secular, liberal elements are as yet unorganized, and the likely result would be that the IRGC, and especially its Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, would seize power. This would undoubtedly be akin to jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
There is an old English saying meaning that patience is the best way to achieve your object: “Softly, softly, catchee monkey.” If eventual regime change is the optimum objective of the West, the process does indeed require patience. Disillusionment among a large section of the Iranian public probably set in just 30 years after the Revolution, triggered by the presidential election of 2009.
On 12 June 2009, following a heated campaign between the popular reformist candidate Mir Hussein Musavi and incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians turned out in record numbers to cast their votes. Shortly after the polls closed, the government announced that Ahmadinejad had been re-elected with 64 per cent of the vote. Musavi was reported to have come second with 34 per cent. Incredulity was followed by widespread allegations of vote rigging and election fraud, and supporters of Musavi − who became known as the “Green Movement” − began mounting public demonstrations in major cities of an intensity unprecedented since the 1979 Revolution.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the Revolutionary Guard to crack down on the protestors. In the ruthless repression that followed, more than 100 people were killed and thousands were arrested to face trial. Many were hanged.
Calm was restored, but by then a spirit of rebellion was in the air throughout the Middle East. Before the end of 2010 the first spark of what was to flare up into the Arab Spring had appeared in Tunisia. Although Iran is not an Arab country, this revolutionary fervour found an echo in the Iranian population, and protests about the 2009 presidential election began to erupt anew. February 14, 2011 saw the start of a year-long period of continuous popular unrest.
The election as president in June 2013 of the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani , was, it goes without saying, blessed by the Supreme Leader, as was the deliberate change of tactics. Now all was to be charm and sweet reason. Immediately after his election, Rouhani agreed to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.
World leaders swallowed the bait. Bowled over by the change in tactics, the UN negotiating team struck a deal, which lifted crippling sanctions on Iran and enabled it to begin trading with the West. In exchange, Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear capabilities for some 15 years, after which it would be free to manufacture nuclear weapons if it wished.
Not even Iran’s Supreme Leader could have foreseen the emergence of a Donald Trump, a rejection by the US administration of the deal and a refusal to accept an Iranian missile development process, and the re-imposition of heavy sanctions. This has thrown Iran into turmoil, with the public openly protesting against the regime’s burdensome domestic, and costly foreign, policies. Is this the beginning of the end for the Islamic revolutionary regime?