Hassan Rouhani’s re-election in May 2017 as Iranian president seemed to many analysts and observers around the world to be a cry from the country’s people for further moderate domestic and international policy, and a return to the reform and detente agenda.
However, the recent protests that shook more than 70 towns around Iran were mainly triggered by discontent over persistent unemployment and inflation, long overdue wages and pensions, the reduction of cash subsidies, environmental degradation, and the collapse of financial institutions.
Iranian leaders, including the Rouhani cabinet, his reformist followers and the Supreme Leader were all surprised by the scale and location of the protests that first erupted over economic grievances and then quickly turned political and spread to long-considered conservative bastions of regime support.
The nature of the protest was surprising not only to the Iranian political elite, which is split and unable to solve the challenges, but it was also felt by the entourage of the Supreme Leader and the security forces who had not heard chants of “Death to the Dictator!” rang out since the Green Movement of 2009.
Iran’s judiciary authorities, in an update about the aftermath of the protests and government response has announced that a total of 25 people had died and nearly 4,000 had been arrested.
Iranian authorities had no trouble controlling the unrest, but it is because of the manner in which protesters shouted against Khamenei and put on fire government offices that this new example of dissent resonated inside and outside Iran.
As such, the protests expressed in many urban and rural areas the broken promise of the revolution. That is the reason why, these kinds of grievances will certainly not go away, and who knows when and where the next spark is going to happen.
The changed climate also represents a strong battle which is engaged between Rouhani and his rival conservatives. The government has blamed the conservatives for encouraging protests in their initial phase which ended in anti-regime slogans. Rouhani called upon the Iranian nomenclature to listen to the protesters, not to destroy them.
“We cannot call everybody who takes to the streets' dirt and dust, cow, sheep or trash,” President Rouhani affirmed in a speech broadcast on state television. Assuredly, his government will try a new round of highly media-publicised anti-corruption cases in order to argue that the government is responding to social demands. But the social and economic realities of those marginalised in the rural and provincial periphery will persist.
Let us not forget that the nuclear agreement was supposed to be his key to solving Iran’s problems, but no bright future is in sight. Add to this the atmosphere of uncertainty triggered by Trump administration which has slowed the pace of post-sanctions trade and investment.
Though the US Congress has been wary of having the collapse of the nuclear deal — and its geopolitical ramifications, President Donald Trump has threatened to get out of the nuclear deal in a few months if European countries don’t agree to renegotiate the landmark agreement.
Of course, European countries plus Russia and China have all rejected renegotiation of the accord.
It’s not a secret, the Trump administration has a clear-cut strategy in regard to the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Middle Eastern policy making. Iran’s regional hegemony has been denounced numerous times by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Trump himself.
Yet, the anti-Iran diplomacy of the White House did not succeed in building a consensus on condemning Iran for sweeping the protests at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
It is very clear that Russia opposed the US push against Iran to be discussed at the Security Council because Nikki Haley had argued that the recent unrest in Iran would escalate into full-blown conflict by drawing a comparison with Syria.
According to the Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia “the US was abusing the Security Council platform and the meeting was an attempt to use the current situation in Iran to undermine the Iran nuclear deal”.
But to the surprise of many people, the French Ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre underlined the fact that the recent events in Iran did not “constitute a threat to peace and international security.”
It is a fact, the recent popular protest in Iran had no leader and no back-up from any political faction. But Trump’s support of the Iranian protesters led, for the first time in Iran, to the popularity of an American president.
Many young Iranians continue to argue that this administration may act differently from that of former president Barack Obama in 2009 when the Green Movement protests were crushed.
That might be the case, but in order for the Trump administration to follow the Iranian news correctly, it needs to collaborate closely with the Europeans, Russia and China on the nuclear deal without necessarily undermining an anti-nuclear proliferation effort that has been a significant success so far.