In the closing days of 2017, in a series of events that took seemingly everyone by surprise, a wave of protests erupted in cities across the state of Iran. Dominating international headlines, the most recent outbreak of dissent has drawn comparison to the 2009 Green Movement, during which the Iranian capital of Tehran was rocked by demonstrations in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election. While it might be tempting to view these recent outbursts as simply a reiteration of the 2009 protests, in truth there are some major, fundamental discrepancies between the two events.
With the US and its European allies having difficulty agreeing on how to enforce the Iranian nuclear agreement, it is worth examining these protests in detail, and how they compare to the 2009 Green Movement, to get a better sense of the impact they might have on global affairs.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was born in 1979, when a group of clerics, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew the government of the Shah. Since then, Iran has primarily been ruled by conservative Shia Muslims who have been criticized for recurring structural issues, analysts say.
Iran’s controversial nuclear program began in the 1950s before the creation of the Islamic Republic itself. Since the early 2000s, there have been growing concerns that the current Iranian regime might attempt to use its nuclear know how to manufacture nuclear armaments. In 2006, the United Nations established the first of a series of sanctions aimed at punishing Iran for its nuclear program. This was later followed by a 2015 agreement between the US and five other major powers to lift “crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for limitations to the country’s controversial nuclear energy programme.” The current state of the nuclear deal, however, is an open question, as the United States’ President Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal, and threatened to pull his country out of the agreement if specific conditions are not met.
During the 2009 Iranian election, the health of the domestic economy was considered the predominant issue, along with concerns over unemployment rates, inflation, dropping oil prices, the global recession and the country’s budget deficit, according to BBC News. The Green Movement protests that followed were sparked by the controversial reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency. Supporters of the opposition candidate felt that the vote had likely been rigged, and were calling for, amongst other things, the overturning of the alleged results and the installing of the opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, into the office of the presidency.
Recent protests, however, appear to have arisen less out of a specific political event and more out of general dissatisfaction “over the country’s economic policies.” While there are some indicators of improved economic performance since the signing of the nuclear deal, for the most part these improvements have not found their way into the lives of Iran’s non-elite citizenry. In the city of Mashhad, protestors were reported to be voicing their concerns about increasingly high prices for goods. Additionally, unemployment for Iranians between 15 and 29 is at 24%. Despite these domestic concerns, programs for the poor are currently facing budget cuts, while funding for the religious establishment remains protected and billions of dollars continue to be spent on the military and its operations in Syria.
The perceived failure of the Iranian government to produce tangible, beneficial changes in people’s lives has led to an outpouring of frustration amongst the populace. According to Adnan Tabatabai, the co-founder of the Germany-based think tank CARPO, “Expectations [about foreign direct investment that would result from the nuclear deal] were far too high, partly because President Rouhani raised them to a very high level in order to gain enough support behind that agreement.”
The 2009 Green Movement was massive and was largely concentrated within Iran’s largest cities, such as Isfahan, Tabriz, and Tehran.
By contrast, the most recent protests numbered only in the hundreds or thousands. However, the 2017 protests are much more widespread, springing up in dozens of towns and mid-sized communities.
The fundamental makeup of the protestors is yet another point for comparison. In 2009, the Green Movement was primarily driven “by the children of wealthy political elites” and by members of the middle or upper classes who did not support the conservative policies of fundamentalists like Ahmadinejad.
The current protests, however, began in the city of Mashhad, which is home to the world’s largest mosque in terms of surface area. Drawing over 20 million Shia Muslim pilgrims each year, it is considered to be a bastion for conservative Iranian politics. However, during the last twenty years Mashhad has seen “rapid development” in the form of “luxury hotel and retail developments in the Thamen district surrounding the holy site.” According to sociologist Azar Tashakor, many of Mashhad’s poorer residents “are religious, and they notice the inequalities in everyday life.”
Ethnic Minority Involvement
Both the 2017 protests and the earlier Green Movement had an ambiguous nature of support (or lack thereof) from Iran’s Kurdish minority. In 2010, the secretary general of the Kurdish Komala Party, Abdullah Mohtadi, “issued a statement aimed at forging solidarity between the Kurds and the Green Movement.” However, the previous year, Loghman H. Ahmedi of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) issued a statement explaining his party’s refusal to officially support the Green Movement. According to Ahmedi, the Green Movement had repeatedly expressed its inherent loyalty to the Islamic Republic as an institution, which he believed had an “undemocratic constitution” and a “theocratic system of governance [which refused to express support for] the national rights that our people demand.”
Similarly, Kurdish support for the 2017 protests has also been mixed. The PDKI, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I), and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) have all expressed support for the protests, with PJAK representatives stating that the protests in East Kurdistan “have the potential to lead to great changes. They could lead to a democratic transformation for the whole of Iran.” However, while many Kurdish citizens in larger urban areas have joined with other protestors, “many of their ethnic brethren in small towns and cities have refrained from joining the protests,” citing their concerns that doing so would only provide the government in Tehran with a pretext to launch a crackdown on the Kurdish population.
The Green Movement was a reaction to the perceived theft of a presidential election. This gave the 2009 protests clear leadership in the form of the opposition candidate, Mousavi, and his lieutenants. The current round of protests seem more spontaneous and less organized, as no clear leadership has yet emerged.
It is an open question whether this lack of a hierarchy is necessarily a disadvantage. In 2009, the regime was able to hit back at the Green Movement by arresting its leadership. Today, it is difficult to arrest leaders who do not exist. As such, the amorphous nature of the current protests may be hampering the regime’s efforts to tamp down on it.
That being said, the regime has nonetheless been actively fighting to suppress the protest movement. In early January, over a thousand people were detained by Iran, and at least 20 people have so far died since the protests began last year. Additionally, a young “woman who became the face of protests in Iran” after removing her headscarf in public last December has since been arrested, with her exact whereabouts currently unknown.
While social media and communications technology at large played an important role in the Green Movement, its influence in Iran, and perhaps the world, was still in its infancy. Twitter, a major avenue of communication for the 2009 protests, was only a few years old, and smart phones were used by fewer than a million Iranians. There were also concerns about Tehran’s ability to cut off “choke points” used by Twitter, or to manipulate the public with false flag tweets from the government that claimed to be coming from fellow protestors.
Nine years later, things have changed drastically. Thanks to a dramatic drop in the price of smartphones, and to the wide expansion of 3G and 4G networks in Iran, more than 48 million Iranians, over half the country, now have access to smartphones, which are used in conjunction with newer social media applications like WhatsApp and Telegram.
The fact that these apps use encryption with their software further complicates the state’s efforts to interfere with communication between the protestors. As such, it is unlikely a coincidence that the Iranian regime started blocking internet access in the days following the initial protests. However, while this tactic might have short-term benefits, long-term use of it could conceivably backfire. It is a truism to say that the internet plays a key role in any modern economy. As the current protests are largely fueled by economic disaffection, shutting down a major driver of the Iranian economy for extended periods could very well just fan those flames.
What Happens Next?
Today, it is all but impossible to say with any certainty what the ultimate impact of the protests will be. However, in a relatively short span of time, the protests seem to have already achieved significant concessions from the government. Both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have expressed support for reducing the role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the economy. Currently, the Revolutionary Guards control as much as 30% of Iran’s economy, and they have been widely criticized in the past for mismanaging large segments of it. In particular, the Guards have been tied to “the collapse of fraudulent financial institutions” that had promised millions of Iranian investors very high monetary returns. According to Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the Guards’ “poor management has been a drag on the economy,” so the move to reduce their economic influence could create an opportunity for the regime to regain the public’s trust.
An additional outcome could be the stabilization of the nuclear deal. Iran has previously expressed that it may be willing to abide by the deal even in the event that the United States unilaterally reimposes sanctions, provided that the European members find a way to ensure Europe puts “in place legal measures that would allow it to invest in the Islamic republic.” As European leaders have expressed great concern about the Guards’ activities in other Middle Eastern nations, and over the group’s control of Iran’s ballistic missile program, a reduction in the Guards’ overall influence could make it more palatable for Europe to continue investing in Iran regardless of any future decisions by the US.