Will anti-government protests destabilise Iran’s political system?

Iran

Published on Friday, 27 May 2022 Back to articles

Widespread protests in Iran

A major hike in food prices has led to angry anti-government protests across diverse cities and segments of the Iranian population. Slogans such as ‘Down with the dictator’ and ‘Death to Raisi’ make clear the level of dissatisfaction with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi. 

As street protests and riots continue, how will the authorities react? Is the sustainability of the regime in danger?

When intense social protests erupted in November 2019 following an increase in fuel prices, security forces made thousands of arrests and hundreds of protesters were killed. According to the Khuzestan Majles deputy Qasem Saedi, however, no casualties have been recorded in the recent demonstrations.

The new protests are much smaller and are organised mainly in smaller towns, such as Dezful, Izeh, Behbahan, Susangerd, and Mahshahr, and primarily in southern and southwestern provinces. Many of the demonstrators are young, a phenomenon that can no doubt be explained by youth unemployment at 26%. 

Furthermore, local journalists claim that most of the protesters are civil servants: either teachers or employees of government institutions. 

The characteristics of the new protests have three possible explanations: 

  • People in larger cities are more concerned about a potential backlash and are hesitant to protest.
  • Residents of rural areas and smaller towns are more harshly affected by inflation and higher prices for basic foods.
  • Environmental issues in the Khuzestan province, especially air pollution caused by dust storms, have agitated the local population and led to protests.

Over the past few years, the nature of social protest has also changed, shifting away from street demonstrations to online activism though social media and to targeted strikes, such as by teachers. 

On 16 May, for example, bus drivers organised a strike in Tehran to parallel street protests in smaller towns. Iran is thus experiencing a three-pronged demonstration of dissent:

  • professional strikes
  • massive online activism, including awareness campaigns about human rights
  • street demonstrations in smaller communities.

This multiplicity has presented new challenges to the security forces, which tend to resort to their old tactics: cutting off the Internet, making widespread arrests, clamping down on protests and in some cases persecuting and arresting protest organisers, such as leaders of the teachers’ association. 

It is noticeable, however, that more recent street protests have not been met with violent suppression.

Government in disarray…

Civil society pushes back…

Impact on regime stability…

Impact on JCPOA negotiations…

Conclusion

Although Iranians are frustrated and ready to protest following each development that erodes socio-economic conditions further, anti-establishment activity will not destabilise the regime. The majority of Iranians would need to have a clear alternative before wanting to see the end of the Islamic Republic.

In the meantime, the average Iranian will become poorer and more frustrated over the next year, while the regime tries to find ways to improve its own legitimacy. 

The most tangible path is a return to the JCPOA and policies that can improve socio-economic and cultural conditions. In the absence of sanctions relief, the government will try to offer short-term remedies, such as relaxing women’s dress code.

In the medium term, if the current reforms do not lead to tangible economic improvements, one can expect more protests and stronger disillusionment.

This excerpt is taken from Iran Strategic Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Iran. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

The May 2022 issues of Iran Strategic Focus also includes the following:

Commentary

  • Will anti-government protests destabilise the political system?

Politics & Society

  • No progress in Vienna 
  • Assad in Tehran
  • Regional diplomacy
  • UN report on sanctions 
  • IRGC assassination
  • Hello, Commander
  • Around Iran

Special Feature

  • The steel industry

Profile

  • Saeed Madani

Economy & Energy

  • Subsidy reforms
  • Inflation and currency
  • Iranian oil market share
  • Energy briefs

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