Protests in Iran: Are They Dangerous for the Government?

Since mid-November, Iran has been swept by mass unrest caused by gasoline rationing and a doubling of gasoline prices. Protests have taken place in many cities throughout the country. They have been accompanied by a wave of arson and attacks on shops, banks and gas stations. Law enforcement has cracked down on these riots, which have left several dead or injured and resulted in the arrest of about a thousand demonstrators.

The issue of rising gasoline prices has long been on the government’s agenda. Thanks to state subsidies costing billions, gasoline in Iran was much cheaper than in other countries in the Middle East. This led to its uncontrolled use and incentivised smuggling into neighbouring countries. After the sharp deterioration of Iran’s economic situation due to tougher US sanctions, and especially after the embargo on the Iranian oil sales, the Iranian government was forced to reduce subsidies for the purchase of gasoline to redirect funds to meet other, more acute needs among the people, especially its poorest. Despite the price hike, Iranian gas remains much cheaper than in neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, this move by the government provoked sharp protests against the background of a steadily declining level and quality of life among the Iranians. Perhaps the authorities should have worked in a timely manner to clarify the motives for their actions, which could reduce tension. But the government only began to explain its decision after the start of the protests.

It should be noted that in suppressing the unrest, law enforcement agencies acted more decisively and harshly than before, quickly identifying and neutralizing the instigators and organizers of the riots. Taking into account the lessons of large-scale protests in 2009 and the role of digital communications in their organization, the authorities quickly turned off the Internet and introduced strict censorship in the media. These measures, together with the propaganda work of the leaders of all three branches of power, including the Supreme Leader and the President of Iran, have yielded results. The protests have begun to decline. This was facilitated by the beginning of the promised cash payments to needy segments of the population.

The US State Department and the American media used the November protests in Iran to further escalate anti-Iranian sentiments, accuse the Iranian authorities of human rights violations, and justify their calls for a change in the “cruel and corrupt” Iranian regime. Reasoned statements by a number of Western, including American analysts about one of the main reasons for the recent protests having been the toughening American policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, were lost in this stream of accusations. The deteriorating socio-economic situation in Iran, rapid devaluation of the national currency, rising unemployment and prices, miscalculations of the authorities in economic policy and growing corruption certainly fuel the discontent among the population.

The Iranian government recognises all of the above factors and is trying to normalise the situation using existing internal reserves and opportunities, and seeks to turn the arrows on the root cause of Iranian socio-economic and financial problems ­– the US sanctions.

The emerging domestic political situation is forcing rival groups from the Iranian establishment (reformers and radicals) to join forces in countering external pressure and the US attempts to isolate Iran economically and politically.

It is too early to talk about a serious threat to the present Iranian regime from inside. State power and law enforcement agencies quite confidently control the situation in the country, preventing a critical aggravation of the situation. The moral authority of the ruling clergy is still high enough to ensure the unity of the Iranians on a religious-nationalist basis in countering real external threats.

The situation in Iran can hardly be considered in the context of the aggravation of other countries of the region, particularly Iraq and Lebanon. Although a certain similarity in the development of unrest and protests against the economic policies of the governments of these countries is visible, the Iranian authorities have more opportunities to quickly put down the protests without serious negative consequences than the leadership of Iraq and Lebanon, which are burdened by religious, ethnic and political differences and contradictions.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.