By Scott Peterson
• In the outpouring of anger by thousands of Iranian protesters, people have died and the country’s foreign policy and top leaders have been denounced. But the driving factor is the economy above all, say analysts.
January 2, 2018 London—The violent protests in Iran that entered their sixth day Tuesday have brought to the surface several underlying and destabilizing forces in Iranian society, among them anger at the top clerical leadership and a degree of resentment at some of the government’s cherished foreign policy commitments.
The protests, which have delivered the worst scenes of unrest witnessed in the Islamic Republic since millions took to the streets over a disputed presidential vote in 2009, have so far left 22 people dead. They have also exposed a political miscalculation by hard-line foes of President Hassan Rouhani, by launching the protests in an effort to discredit his economic policies, then seeing them spin violently out of control.
Still, the protests are fundamentally about the economy more than anything else, say analysts in Iran: stubbornly high poverty and unemployment, the failure to extract a peace dividend from the much-heralded 2015 nuclear deal, and the continuing problem of entrenched corruption that was one of Mr. Rouhani’s own rallying cries in the last election.
The numbers of people on the streets are far smaller than in 2009 – several tens of thousands in total, it appears this time – but the protests have been fueled by a constellation of reasons for discontent, including Rouhani’s latest austerity budget.
Still, in his first public comments since the violence began, Ayatollah Khamenei accused “the enemies of Iran, using various tools at their disposal, including money, weapons, political means and their security apparatuses,” to harm the Islamic Republic.
“The enemy is waiting for an opportunity, for a crack to enter and interfere,” said Khamenei.
He made no reference to economic misery, though such concerns – and Rouhani’s checkered economic scorecard – dominated the presidential election last May. As protests mounted, Rouhani said the economy needed “major surgery” and that “people are angry about corruption and demand transparency.”
One target for protesters’ chants has been Iran’s years-long and expensive projection of power abroad, especially in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, where Iran has spent billions of dollars propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, creating Shiite militias in Iraq to fight Islamic State (ISIS), and ensuring the military prowess of its vital ally, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
While that effort has given Iran more influence and leverage across the Middle East than at any other time since the 1979 Islamic revolution – and turned the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force, Maj. Gen. Qasim Soleimani, into a national hero in Iran – the cost has raised some eyebrows.
“Leave Syria, find a solution for us!” is one chant heard on the streets, where social media and even state television have shown buildings and cars on fire and military bases under attack. Another chant has been: “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, we sacrifice our lives for Iran!”
From the outside, it may appear easy to connect the dots between the costs of Iran’s intervention abroad and the scale of domestic economic woe. But analysts inside the country say Iran’s current unprecedented status in the Middle East is not likely to have been made at the expense of economic prosperity at home, where mismanagement and corruption are more critical factors.
“Frankly speaking, these are arguments which protesters try to hide behind; I don’t believe that even half of one percent of the GDP of Iran is allocated for Syria or Yemen,” says Saeed Laylaz, a reformist economist and former presidential adviser in Tehran who spent time in prison for his reformist affiliations.
“These are arguments, but people are poor,” says Mr. Laylaz. ‘This is the fact that around 30 million Iranians are under the relative poverty line.”