In a matter of days, protests in Iran have quickly spread across the country, taking the government by surprise and leaving analysts and pundits alike confused. Part of the reason many have been caught off guard is because these protests appear quite different from their 2009 predecessor — in terms of size, leadership and objective.
But another reason is that the drivers of these protests are from a segment of the population that has rarely figured into Iran’s political developments in the past two decades — those who never believed or have lost hope in the idea of real change through reform.
Similarities between the current protests and the 2009 uprising are quite limited. While the current demonstrations started outside of Tehran — in Mashhad and Qom — and quickly spread to other cities, their size remains relatively small compared to what the world observed after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 elections.
In the first few days after that election, more than one million people protested in the streets of Tehran. Though quite ferocious, the current protests have rarely numbered more than a few thousand in any specific locality.
The protests in 2009 also had very specific goals — at least initially. They were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and the protestors were demanding the votes be recounted. The protests also had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who gave the movement much-needed organization.
The current protests appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days. According to witnesses I’ve spoken to, the protests were initiated in Mashhad by religious hardliners who sought to take advantage of the population’s legitimate economic grievances to score points against the Hassan Rouhani government, which they consider too moderate.
But they quickly lost control over the protests as the economic message has resonated with a broader segment of the population than they expected. Frustrations with corruption and falling living standards appear to have given way to much sharper political slogans — such as “Death to the dictator!” and “Down with the Islamic Republic!”
Few have been more surprised by all of this than Iran’s reformists. The absence of slogans and chants invoking Green leaders such as Mousavi, Karroubi or former President Mohammad Khatami gives credence to their claims that they are not a driving force behind these protests. In fact, no major reformist figure has come out in favor of the protests, and some activists have even spoken out against them.
Key operatives in the Green movement that I have spoken to both in Iran and in exile have clearly adopted a calculated distance from the demonstrators, though they express sympathy for the population’s grievances.
The fact that reformists — who have been at the center of most of the large-scale protests in Iran for the past two decades — appear to be neither driving nor even particularly involved presents a new political phenomenon in Iran.
The protestors likely include some disillusioned Rouhani supporters. But remember that Rouhani won re-election with 57% of the vote (and 70% voter participation) only seven months ago. That means it’s more likely that the core of the demonstrators are of a different ilk.
Their uncompromisingly anti-regime slogans suggest they may belong to the segment of the population who tends not to vote, doesn’t believe the system can be reformed and either never subscribed to or has lost hope in the idea of gradual change. Add to that those who have joined the protests out of a sense of economic desperation and humiliation.
Most analysts have not kept an eye on these segments of the population precisely because they have not been at the center of political change in Iran in recent history. Nor do they have a track record of being able to muster protests of this size.
Precisely because this is a new phenomenon, it is also more challenging to predict how the protests will evolve and how protestors will react to the likely crackdown by the authorities in the coming days. This may also explain why the government’s reaction thus far has been relatively muted.
The Iranian government is certainly not known for its lack of brutality. Protests in 2009 were violently suppressed, with massive human rights violations captured by citizen journalists on their cellphones.
The brutality it is capable of has — at least so far — not been fully mustered. The question is why?
Is it because the Rouhani government calculates that the protests will fizzle out on their own and potentially even give him leverage against the hardliners to push more aggressively for reform? Or, is it because the hardliners are holding back to embarrass Rouhani and claim he is incapable of upholding security?
Or, is it simply that the government as a whole is scrambling to figure out how to respond to this outpouring of discontent from segments of society they rarely pay attention to?
Four days into the protests, there are still more questions than answers. The picture that is emerging, however, is that the political landscape in Iran is being shaken up by those seeking change outside of reform.