Iran has been a severely divided nation since the fall of the Shah in 1979, but the already politically turbulent climate has been worsening lately due to economic and social discontent. The complaints are all too familiar to the other oil-powerhouses in the region: corruption and financial inequality. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high, and the economy has been slow to recover since sanctions against the country were lifted in 2016. In recent years the price of fuel, dairy, and meat, have all skyrocketed, with little hope for a fall anytime soon.
Mark Dubowitz from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) spoke with the Wall Street Journal about the state of Iran, and how the current administration could learn something from Ronald Reagan. In Dubowitz’ opinion “The Islamic Republic of Iran is imperialist, repressive, and—unless we adopt a new strategy—[is] on its way toward possessing nuclear weapons.” The series of public Iranian protests, which lasted from December 2017 to January 2018, could suggest a threat to the stability of the government.
Most information regarding the size of the demonstrations and more specifics about the motivations are unclear due to the government’s strict prohibitions on news coverage and social media. The Iranian Minister of the Interior blamed social media for causing unnecessary fear and violence, and in response the government has vowed to limit such technology. Things only grew more opaque after the Iranian State News Network was banned from covering the protest, and reports were restricted from private news organizations.
In retaliation for the the protests, many cities suffered internet outages. In several regions the internet providers are either wholly or partially owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and therefore report directly to the government. At the height of the unrest, the country showed a drop as high as 50% in internet traffic, and a massive surge in the use of online masking software, such as the anonymous browser TOR.
Some think the fast growth of the cause might have been sparked by an organized anti-government group operating covertly within the country. The US and Saudi Arabia might have reason to fund groups like the Iranian Kurds who disconnected from the central government, but there is no evidence that happened.
What we do know is that the demonstrations began with a protest in Mashhad against rising prices. Mashhad is a known haven for religious fundamentalists, so it’s possible the conservatives stoked the demonstrations in an attempt to undermine President Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a political moderate. However, even if the hardliners caused the protests, it’s evident that the sentiments are shared across the country.
President Rouhani and the rest of his administration have called for calm and reiterated that the citizens have a right to demonstrate so long as property isn’t destroyed. One of the government’s responses was to ban English language lessons in public schools because it paved the way for a “cultural invasion of Western Values.”
There is a great deal of criticism for the government’s excessive arrests and use of torture. Twenty-five total deaths during the movement have been reported, with many having suspicious circumstances. The White House referred to the reports of inmates being tortured as disturbing. Many arrests have been cited as clear human rights violations. In Malayer, a 15-year-old boy was sentenced to five years in prison for pulling down a government flag in a city square.
The violent suppression of protests, the human rights violations, and government censorship all might force Western nations towards a more aggressive stance with Iran, which could severely cripple the nuclear deal. If sanctions are brought back, and the financial inequality worsens, then it’s likely there’s more civil unrest to come.