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Iran’s protests are a sign of inevitable change

Nov 19,2019 - Last updated at Nov 19,2019

A government decision to ration petrol and hike its prices has triggered mass protests across Iran over the weekend in what appeared to be a spontaneous erruption against dire economic conditions. By Monday, protests and riots had reached the capital amid reports of mass arrests and killings of protestors by the Basij, a paramilitary arm of the ruling clergy answering directly to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The controversial decision to hike the price of petrol was confirmed by Khamenei on Sunday, who described the protestors as thugs and called on the government to use force to subdue them. Internet service was cut off in most cities as protests were reported in Ahvaz, Mashhad, Shiraz, Borujen, Mahshahr, Gachsaran, Zahedan, Sirjan, Behbahan and Khoramshahr, with protestors burning Khamenei’s image and chanting “death to the dictator”.

Iran’s economy has been struggling since the US withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018 and imposed tough sanctions that constrained the country’s ability to export its oil. But what makes (this latest uprising exceptional, there were similar protests in December 2017 and August 2018), is the fact that they coincide with major popular revolts in neighbouring Iraq and in Lebanon; two countries where Iran holds considerable political sway.

The revolt in Iraq, with demonstrators calling for Iran’s expulsion, especially in the Shiite majority south, has had a direct impact on Iran’s stressed economy. Iraqi protestors had interrupted work at the country’s major seaports, including Um Qasr and Abu Flous, which Tehran has been using to smuggle its oil.

The Iranian economy has been deteriorating with the riyal losing almost 60 per cent of its value in the past 15 months, affecting ordinary Iranians but more significantly the influential bazaar merchants in Tehran and Isfahan. The official unemployment rate stands at 12 per cent, with youth unemployment reaching 26 per cent. The overall inflation rate stands at 47 per cent with rates as high as 63 per cent for food and fuel, making it difficult to buy essential goods even for the middle class. The International Monetary Fund predicted last October that Iran’s economy would contract by 9.5 per cent this year.

With a population of 80 million, where 40 per cent is under 25, it is no wonder that protests are eruptting every few months as living conditions deteriorate. There is no doubt that US sanctions have contributed to worsening economic conditions, but it is important to note that mass corruption has been fuelling popular discontent for years. Successive presidents have failed to eradicate institutional corruption that has spread all the way to include the judiciary, the banking sector, lawmakers, government officials and the influential religious and paramilitary institutions.

The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a state within a state and is believed to be in control of 20 per cent to 40 per cent of Iran’s economy, employing more than 200,000 in 220 companies that it runs directly or indirectly. It has its own navy, militias and missile system and answers only to Khamenei and not the president or the government. Its budget is separate from that of the state and its activities extend beyond Iran into Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

The IRGC’s squandering of billions of dollars outside Iran has fuelled discontent among ordinary Iranians. Protestors directed their anger towards Iran’s sponsorship of proxies outside their country. It is ironic that while Iranians continue to suffer, the religious class under Khamenei is more concerned with keeping its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at all cost. It is Iran’s regional agenda and meddling in the affairs of others that has alienated it from its neighbours in the first place.

The regime’s response to the protests will be violent and bloody and, despite growing disgruntlement among the middle class, the ruling religious group is unlikely to change its behaviour or make concessions at this stage. President Hassan Rouhani, who said that Iran is experiencing its most difficult times since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, can do little to resist pressure from the Supreme Leader and his IRGC loyalists.

But it is almost certain that Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq will recede in the wake of the two uprisings that are raging in the two countries. The reality is that citizens in both countries are fed up with Iran’s meddling and as they shun sectarianism and the corruption of the ruling class they will also derail Tehran’s efforts to sabotage their revolt.

Whether the current protests in Iran will rage on or will be crushed remains to be seen. But one thing is certain; the challenge facing the regime will not go away anytime soon and public anger will continue to build up as the economy contracts further and as hardship affects the majority of the population. The country’s religious clique will have to realise that maintaining the status quo is untenable and that change will take place eventually.  

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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