The Who, Why and What Now: Deconstructing the Iran Protests


Reporting on the recent series of protests in Iran has been curtailed by little yet largely unverifiable evidence. As a consequence, important questions remain around the who and why of the protests. This article explores the role economic grievances played in the demonstration’s onset and dynamics, and discusses their political implications.

In December 2017, Iranians took to the street in dozens of cities to express their discontent and anger in the largest demonstrations since 2009 when a middle-class driven movement demanded accountability from then President Ahmadinejad. Three weeks later, more than 20 people have lost their lives, thousands have been arrested, and the protests have died away.

This recent uprising differed considerably from both the 2009 Green Movement and the 1999 student unrest. Unlike eight years ago, a wave of demonstrations rolled across the country, predominantly consisting of young, provincial, lower-middle and working class men. The protests neither had a single driver, nor specific requests or a leading figure. Instead, they were spontaneous and fragmented.

The Who and Why

The common media narrative has become that of economic grievances. Iran‘s high rates of inflation and its isolation from international financial institutions have precipitated a dramatic and unequal drop in living standards since 2007. Especially Iranian youth face bleak living prospects and high unemployment rates. In 2013, the Nuclear Deal between Iran and the P5+1 came and boosted economic expectations. The Deal was portrayed by the government and perceived by the population as the magic potion that would solve all problems. Two years in, trade has increased significantly, but not much has changed on the micro-level. While Iranians have expressed their growing frustration in peaceful demonstrations for months, in recent elections they have continued to support Rouhani’s mandate to fulfill his promises. In addition, most Iranians – and in particular the middle-class – are not (yet) in such a dire position as to risk their lives. The brutal treatment by security forces in 2009 was socially traumatic and as long as Iranians’ patience is not fully exhausted, they will not readily resort to violence. What, then, transformed the spark of grievance into this fire of protest? The distinctive contextual element explaining the timing of the protests’ onset is the release of the national budget, which exposed lavish spendings of tax money on religious institutions affiliated with hardline conservatives. While the transparency of the budget is likely to have been intended as a tactical move by Rouhani to force hardliners towards accountability, it had the effect of further disillusioning the population.

What Now? The protests’ political implications

Hardliners have repeatedly instrumentalized economic grievances to stimulate protest against Rouhani. This has to be viewed as part of a broader power struggle between political factions. Aside from the everyday political competition, the elephant in the room of Iranian politics is Supreme Leader Khamenei and his inevitable, and possibly imminent, death. Not only has the sharp electoral defeat of Raisi deprived the hardliners of their most viable candidate for the succession of the Supreme Leadership, but Rouhani is in fact also increasingly being handled as potential candidate. Despite the power struggle within the political elite, no one anticipated the loss of control over the protests. Initiated to rush against Rouhani’s economic policies, the protests have turned against them and started to target the system as a whole.

Both hardliners and President Rouhani emerge as short term losers from the protests. While the former are nowhere nearer in securing a conservative succession for Khamenei, the latter risks losing popular momentum. Instead of symbolically arresting a small number of people on corruption charges to soothe anger – a popular move we are likely to observe in the coming weeks – the Reformists and Rouhani should realise the fragility of their popularity, take the population’s economic grievances seriously and work on managing expectations.