The Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said on August 19 that the frequency of multilayered demonstrations in the country had declined by 38 percent. This has happened despite a surge in popular discontent, which raises questions about the dimensions, significance, and reasons behind this decline as well as the future of social movements in Iran in light of the current circumstances faced by the country at home and abroad.
From Escalation to Calm
After the end of the December 2017 uprising, which ended in mid-January 2018, Iran has seen swelling street protests. These demonstrations reached their peak in May 2018, which coincided with the Iranian currency plummeting, and the scarcity of the US dollar in the market as well as the deterioration in living conditions for several layers of Iranian society, which prompted widespread factions to join the protests. The protests were spearheaded by diverse segments including workers, students, Bazaar traders, teachers, doctors, and others.
The US escalation, culminating in its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, played a prominent role in stoking the pace of this social movement. This is because the US decision significantly impacted Iranian economic indicators in a negative manner, and it had an enormous psychological impact on Iranian society. The US administration was betting on pressuring the government through sanctions to provoke citizens into protesting against the political system, which already happened in 2018 on a large scale.
Some reports were released in the second half of May 2018, specifically between 20 and 27 May, indicating there were nearly 489 different protests across Iran, approximately 69 protests per day. But in early 2019, the pace of the protests started to wane gradually though they did not vanish completely. As the Iranian interior minister said, they dropped by 38 percent.
An Unjustified Decline in Protests
On the ground, there has been no genuine change in income indicators, nor at the economic level in a way that can explain the decline of protests to this degree. On the contrary, the situation worsened during the last months of 2018 and the recent months of 2019.
Unemployment among young people has increased to nearly 25 percent in the spring of 2019, compared to a general rate of 12 percent by the end of 2018. The inflation rate in the same period was 26.6 percent compared to 10.2 percent in September 2018. Also, economic growth rates declined. The value of the currency prompted the government to delete four zeros from its national currency.
All these negative developments were influenced by US pressure, which culminated in May with the scrapping of its exemptions on Iran’s oil exports, and thus oil exports fell to less than 300,000 barrels per day in June and were reported to have declined to almost 100,000 barrels per day in July, instead of 1.1 million barrels at the beginning of 2019 and 2.9 million barrels before the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in mid-2018. This is in addition to the sanctions, which included a ban on petrochemicals and metals exports, with the aim of depriving Iran of foreign currency sources and reducing the volume of its export revenues to the minimum. This came within the package of maximum economic pressures adopted by the Trump administration.
Also, Iran faced difficulties and challenges in its banking transactions and in retrieving its oil and non-oil export revenues as a result of the ban on the Iranian financial sector, included in the US sanctions. This happened at a time when all the European parties failed to fulfill their promises to Iran to help it export its oil and find an alternative financial mechanism to aid financial transactions between Iran and the outside world as agreed between the two sides. The European hesitation is due to its fear of being hit by US sanctions.
Even the economic policies adopted by the Iranian government did not contribute to stopping economic conditions from deteriorating. In fact, poverty, inflation, and unemployment increased, thus intensifying public discontent. With these worsening economic trends, one would expect an increase in protests, not a decline as pointed out by the Iranian interior minister.
A Systematic Policy of Containment
We can find an explanation to this paradox of mounting public discontent and a decline in protests through pointing to several factors, including the Iranian government’s strategy of blaming US pressures for Iran’s economic crises as an excuse for exonerating itself from the worsening economic situation in the country to lower social tensions and to contain the relentless waves of protests. The government succeeded through its propaganda machine in quelling anger at home, containing popular outrage and working to create national consensus under the pretense that the state is facing outside existential threats. This is in addition to the show of force carried out by the IRGC by it claiming to defy the United States in Gulf waters. This formed part of the government’s appeasement efforts to boost public morale. Historical experience reveals that political systems succeed in rallying citizens behind their policies at times of crisis.
Although the protests gained momentum following the US pullout from the nuclear deal and after Washington’s bet on engendering popular discontent, the forces leading the protests, with the passage of time, have become certain, that changing the political system is not on the US agenda. In addition, that the US administration does not have the desire or enthusiasm to change the political system. This weakened the protests and dampened the will of groups working to mobilize the masses.
In the meantime, as the multilayered protests continued to grow, the government adopted a plan to deal with these protests. The implementation of this plan varied, including security aspects such as repression, arrests, forced disappearances of protesters and accusing them of collaborating with outside forces. The state used the Basij and Hezbollah affiliates to carry out thuggish acts to intimidate the protesters and to prevent the spillover and continuation of the protests.
This is in addition to political measures such as regulating the protests and designating specific spots in order to easily control and address them as well as economic measures to tackle the deteriorating economic situation and to deal with mounting demands. The government showed flexibility towards the demands of some factions and positively tackled their demands in addition to opening the door for dialogue and discussion within the government and its institutions on the crises.
Also, the government sought to enforce a reshuffle in its economic posts to cope with these developments. In addition, it invoked religious rhetoric in order to allay popular anger and to retain popular cohesion to confront what the government considers as outside interference, which seeks to undermine the Iranian nation and its capabilities.
The Future of Protests
The fact that the multilayered protests have declined by almost 40 percent as the Iranian interior minister declared, means that 60 percent of protests are still continuing. Consequently, society continues to go through tension and dissatisfaction in light of the increasingly difficult economic conditions.
Although the government has succeeded in reducing tensions during this phase, using all its security and political tools, the lack of real solutions to the economic crisis will only temporarily ease the situation, which will soon end. Tensions may return, however, at greater rates and with broader impacts. The path to overcoming the crisis is to find real solutions to outside pressures that are a major challenge to the economy.
The protests will not stop, and the pace of protests will increase, especially as more young people are joining the ranks of the unemployed, and as inflation rates are increasing, and the legitimacy of the government is eroding as time passes. The United States, for its part, will continue to impose further sanctions on Iranian exports and on its financial networks. The protests are likely to escalate within months, especially as oil revenues decrease further, and the inability of the government to meet its basic obligations becomes more apparent as well as the ineffectiveness of its austerity policies. Next year, Trump will finish his presidential term, and will probably win a second presidential term; therefore, the US strategy will see a further escalation.
On the other side, there is a possibility that the protests’ pace could fall given the likelihood of Iran engaging in negotiations with the United States after the intensification of US pressures and the government’s realization that it is about to collapse.
In light of the existing international pressure and mediation efforts, the most important of which is the French mediation attempt, which finds European support as well as Iranian acceptance, the possibility of entering into negotiations, whether through this mediation attempt or other initiatives/settlement proposals, may be accompanied by an economic breakthrough. This could happen if the oil and financial sanctions are scrapped to restore calm at home leading to an improvement in economic performance and a quelling in factional protests.
It could be said that these factional protests reflect economic realities more than a public expression of political demands. It means the protests are indicative of the mounting frustration, glaring social inequality, and the absence of welfare services as well as no job opportunities, especially for the youth. The situation in Iran is not likely to witness a revolution against the political system. Therefore, handling these tensions is possible, especially given that the government was able to prevent the spillover of the protests to some extent. But containing them in the future on a bigger scale depends on the government’s handling of the economic crisis and ending the sanctions imposed on it by the United States or overcoming their consequences. There is no realistic trajectory to address this scenario except for the government to show some flexibility when it comes to the issue of negotiations.