For the second time in two years, Iran’s regime has witnessed significant nationwide unrest in response to deteriorating economic conditions that went on to challenge the very basis of the Islamic Republic and its core national security policy of empowering regional allies and proxies. In contrast to the unrest in 2017, the 2019 demonstrations were an immediate reaction to a specific economic policy announcement, namely that fuel prices would increase 50% for a monthly allotment of 15 gallons and 300% for purchases greater than that amount.
The government explained the price increase as being intended to free up budgetary resources to increase cash transfers to 75% of the country’s lowest-earning families. The decision – presented as a consensus among the executive, parliamentary, and judiciary branches of government – was generally in line with consistent recommendations to curb subsidies from a wide range of economists and international economic bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund. In particular, the generous state subsidies on fuel encouraged excess gasoline usage and sapped government coffers correspondingly.
The scope of the 2019 unrest appeared comparable to that which occurred in late 2017, involving simultaneous demonstrations in over 100 cities and localities. Some asserted that the use of violence by protesters was more widespread and intense than in 2017. State and social media showed many buildings, as well as gas stations, police posts, and other installations in Tehran and elsewhere burned by demonstrators. Motorists purposely blocked highways and roads. Yet, the demonstrations were not nearly as broad-based as the 2009 uprising that brought out hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators in Tehran and other major cities. As in 2017, protesters expressed the view that economic conditions might be better for the Iranian population if the government were willing to reduce spending on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its regional interventions – policies that have produced few tangible benefits for the vast bulk of the population. Additionally, protesters indicated that the effects of Iran’s economic difficulties were borne primarily by average Iranians, leaving the elites and regime security organs virtually untouched.
Amidst this most recent round of unrest, the regime followed the same playbook previously used to successfully quash the 2017 demonstrations. Internet access was cut-off to hinder protest organizers. Security organs such as the IRGC and its militia, the Basij, allowed peaceful protests to go forward, using force only in selected cases of organized violence against government installations and public property. As he has tended to do when unrest has flared in the past, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed the protests on agitation by outside powers and exiled opposition groups such as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MeK) and supporters of the son of the ousted Shah of Iran.
Uncharacteristically, the Supreme Leader weaved some concessionary comments into his hardline threats of a more intense crackdown against protesters who commit acts of violence. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei stated on the third day of unrest that dissatisfaction over fuel price hikes was “understandable.” However, at the same time he indicated that the fuel subsidy reduction decision would stand. His comments appeared to cause the protests to diminish, and two days later President Rouhani “declared victory” over the unrest. Khamenei’s conciliatory comments appeared to reinforce the realization by much of the public that the government faces difficult choices in coping with the effect of the Trump Administration’s sanctions-based “maximum pressure” campaign that began in 2018. The regime also mobilized several large counter-demonstrations to illustrate that the views of the protesters were not universally shared among Iranians.
The regime’s suppression of the unrest represented a blow to the opposition. In contrast to recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon, neither President Hassan Rouhani nor any other senior Iranian official resigned or offered to resign. Leaders of exiled opposition groups characteristically issued statements of support for the demonstrators and called on the United States and other powers for support. However, each opposition faction acted on its own, again illustrating the extent to which the outside opposition is divided. Despite evidence of the regime’s unpopularity with many Iranians, there has been little progress among outside opposition leaders in forging a united front or formulating a joint strategy to challenge the regime. The MeK, in particular, appears to refuse any cooperation with other exiled groups, viewing itself as the only group capable of mounting a sustained or successful challenge to the regime.
The latest round of Iranian unrest has also had implications for the Trump Administration, which issued several statements of solidarity with protesters and again called for the regime to avoid the use of force. The U.S. also imposed sanctions on a top Iranian official responsible for shutting down internet access. Administration officials and supporters of its Iran policy indicated that the unrest represents the success of the campaign of maximum pressure, insofar as Iran’s economic difficulties are stoking challenges to the regime. Still, the abatement of protests after six days – and the absence of any regime concessions to the demonstrators or to U.S. demands for Iranian behavior change – might argue against claims of imminent success for the U.S. policy.
Dr. Kenneth Katzman, a Senior Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Library of Congress, writing in a personal capacity.