Unrest has gripped Iran as anti-government protests have spread through major cities including the capital Tehran in the largest demonstrations since 2009. Other major cities such as Rasht, in the north, and Kermanshah, in the west, have seen large crowds of people gathered together with smaller protests in Isfahan and Hamadan.
The protests started on Thursday in Iran’s second biggest city Mashhad over rising prices have steadily grown into calls against the clerical rule of Iran and decrying government corruption. Other protestors have called for more political freedoms, an end to police brutality and even calling for Iran to pull out of its regional conflicts in the Middle East.
Protesters have denounced President Hassan Rouhani and even the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a rare show of public anger. Despite warnings from authorities, the protests have grown larger with over 50 people arrested in Tehran for chanting ‘harsh slogans’. Some in the government have called for harsh action against protestors despite the mostly peaceful demonstrations.
The authorities have been quick to blame foreign agents and anti-revolutionary elements in the populations. A close ally of Rouhani has suggested that hardline conservative opponents of Rouhani started the protests, warning that the disturbances would quickly grow out of control. Judging by how far and how quickly it has spread, those who oppose Rouhani face being left behind and even turned on.
While Iran is no stranger to public protests, it is rare for a purely political protest to break out across the country. While the original protests were based on economic concerns, the speed and size of the protests indicate that there is a deep well of resentment against the government as a whole. With billions being poured into supporting fighters in Yemen and Syria, many Iranians are resentful that their needs are being ignored.
Part of the anger stems from Iran’s role in the wider conflicts in the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen. However, the economic concerns stem from a perception that Rouhani’s government has yet to deliver on its promise that the nuclear deal with the USA, which Trump decertified, would boost the economy by opening its doors with the West. So far, Trump’s insistence on pulling the plug on the deal leaves many in doubt that Iran will see any boost to its economy.
Such a rare display of public anger is an ill-omen for Iran’s government as 2018 draws near. How Rouhani reacts to the protests will prove a huge test of his leadership while the international watches to see if the protests continue to gather momentum. The stakes are high for both the government and the protesters as both vie to see who blinks first.
As 2009 showed, Iran’s authorities are willing to give in to the demands of the people. The question is, will they buckle again?