There are few signs that the country is yet a tinder box for a counter-revolution requiring just a spark to set it off.
The current demonstrations in Iran seem more widespread but less coordinated than any since those of the Pro-Democracy Movement (The Green Movement) in 2009, which were ruthlessly suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards and other internal enforcement agencies such as the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia which, like the Revolutionary Guards, was established to protect the Supreme Leaders of the Revolution that overturned the Shah in 1979.
The response by the Iranian authorities has to date been more measured but the demonstrators have been threatened with the nation’s “iron fist” if they continue, particularly with the destruction of State property.
The demonstrations began in the conservative north-eastern region and spread to a dozen other population centres including Teheran. The protesters appear to have mixed, if not divergent, targets arising from general dissatisfaction with a dysfunctional government’s priorities – everything from failure to provide employment growth, rising prices and corruption to squandering resources on foreign interventionist policies in such places as Syria and Iraq. It has been estimated that on average Iranians have become 15% poorer in the past 10 years.
While the demonstrations lack central direction, a fact that has caused the government to shut down social media networks to frustrate attempts to achieve that, what is less known is whether and to what extent they reflect divisions in the clerical hierarchy, in particular those around the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. There have been calls for the removal or worse of the former. And it is thought that the measured response to the demonstrations is indicative of the frustrations of the latter whose reform programs have been checked by the Ayatollah.
Hassan Rouhani has stated that the protesters are “free to protest against the government” but must not jeopardise security. He acknowledged problems. On the economic front the government has had to contend for years until recently with severe international sanctions and apprehensions of hostile actions against its interests from within the region and beyond. Over and above are its geopolitical ambitions as the leading Shi’ite power contending with Sunni powers, in particular Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Demonstrators have had to tread a fine line between their domestic grievances on the one side and undermining national security interests on the other.
It would be unlikely that the demonstrations would lead to any fundamental changes or threaten significant power balances in the country while the focus remains amorphous or defused. Too many sub-groups in Iranian society fear disruption to their lives, difficult though they may be in many respects, from a major disruption. Unless the demonstrations can mobilise around a common theme or issue which affects the greater number, they will lack the massive public support essential to disrupt the well protected regime whose willingness to take extreme measures when seriously threatened is well recognised.
A leadership for a mass movement is not apparent as most significant oppositionists have already been effectively silenced, suppressed or imprisoned. There are few signs that the country is yet a tinder box for a counter-revolution requiring just a spark to set it off. The task for President Rouhani is to lead Iran out of the numerous stalemates that prevent positive change and the effective pursuit of overall economic and social development that would provide hope for emerging generations to gain satisfying employment and fulfilling lives.
It must be hoped that the US under President Trump will not attempt to exploit any weakness in the Iranian regimes (clerical and secular), particularly in regard to the Nuclear Weapons Agreement which would not only unsettle Iran itself, but reignite or extend military conflict and cause further destabilisation in the wider region (at a time when most people have had enough of that already).
The next few weeks may tell a different story, but unlikely.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and academic in international and public law.