RFL/RE – Days after deadly antigovernment rallies erupted in Iran, it is still difficult to pinpoint just who the protesters are and what, exactly, they want.
The demonstrations lack a central voice, are taking place across vast and varied territories, and are attracting a broad range of Iranians, making it difficult to pinpoint any gender, age group, or economic class.
That is in stark contrast to the 2009 mass protests that erupted after the contentious reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Those rallies were rooted in popular anger against what was seen as a fraudulent election, were driven by leaders of the opposition Green Movement, and backed largely by Tehran’s educated middle class.
While comparisons have been drawn to the 2009 unrest when trying to gauge the current protests’ place in recent history, five days of protests show they do not fit neatly into the same mold.
“These protests cannot be portrayed, as the regime tried to do with 2009, as a ‘north Tehran phenomenon’ of troublesome, better-off, better-educated activists,” says Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Birmingham University in Britain and editor of the EA World View website.
Iranian students clash with riot police during a protest around the University of Tehran on December 30.
“The spread of the protests across the country in almost every Iranian city shows a widespread questioning of what the regime is doing over the economy, foreign policy and military interventions, and political and social issues,” Lucas adds.
Tehran has tried to pin the current protests largely on youths. Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari has said that 90 percent of the protesters detained nationwide were under 25 years old.
But while witness testimony and footage from the protests do show that many participants are young, it would be simplistic and misleading to suggest that they are the only ones protesting.
Considering that people under the age of 25 would have been born after the 1979 revolution that founded the Islamic republic, it would be easy for Tehran to write off the current protests to the youthful exuberance of youths who are too young to know any better.
But a 25-year-old protester would have been coming of age when the clerical establishment reacted in brutal fashion to the largely peaceful protests of 2009. Many presumably went on to vote in the 2013 election that chose Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rohani.
Cast as a relative moderate, Rohani won on pledges to improve ties with the West, secure more freedoms for Iranians, and revive the recession-hit economy. Rohani won again in 2017, in part due to his success in working out a deal with Western powers over Iran’s contentious nuclear program and the promise of more openness to come as Iran shed the label of international pariah.
But despite securing the lifting of crippling international sanctions as part of the deal, frustrations over Rohani’s failure to deliver economic benefits grew.
WATCH: Some residents of Tehran described their financial struggles as days of antiestablishment protests took place in dozens of towns and cities across Iran.
Tehran Residents Share Economic Grievances Amid Protests
Certainly, Iran’s high unemployment and dire economic situation hits the country’s younger generation hard. More than 50 percent of the population is under 30, and while youth unemployment is officially around 20 percent, it is believed to be closer to 40 percent.
But they are far from being the only disenfranchised segment of society.
“Those people who are taking part in the protests are from all social classes, regions, and demographics in society,” says Raman Ghavami, an Iranian analyst who has been tracking the protest. “The poor, the middle class, the rich are taking part. Woman are playing a role.”
Referencing footage of security forces refusing to make arrests and standing in solidarity with demonstrators in Lorestan Province, Ghamvami notes that “even some security forces are rejecting orders.”
No Overriding Issue
There is no single issue that is driving the protests.
The protests first erupted in the city of Mashhad on December 28, where demonstrators rallied against a surge in prices of basic food supplies, such as eggs and poultry.
But as the protests spread, protesters directed their anger at Iran’s political leadership, chanting “Death to Rohani” and “Death to [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei.” Some protesters have even called for the return of the monarchy that was ousted in the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Some have also chanted slogans against Iran’s foreign policies, including its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seen by some as an expensive and wasteful undertaking abroad considering Iran’s needs at home.
Analysts believe the protests in Mashhad may have been driven by internal rifts in the clerical system that gave impetus to spontaneous protests erupting across the country. Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city, is home to Rohani’s former election rival, hard-line conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi.
“Some hard-liners welcomed the initial protests, but what they may have hoped would serve their factional interests in the short term appears to have unleashed more fundamental grievances that go much deeper,” says Naysan Rafati, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
In short, what may have started as an effort to heap criticism on Rohani and his nuclear deal may have awakened broad yet latent discontent.
Protests are not so unprecedented in Iran — demonstrations have been staged by taxi drivers, autoworkers, teachers, and environmentalists in the past several years. But the demonstrations were usually contained to specific gripes, and received some element of official consent.
No Central Leadership
In contrast to the 2009 mass rallies that were driven by the opposition Green Movement, whose leaders still remain under house arrest, there is no apparent leadership or movement behind the current protests.
“[The protests] appear to be entirely spontaneous and as far as I can tell, leaderless,” Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at Rand Corporation, wrote on Twitter.
This lack of a central message, analysts say, will make it more difficult for authorities to break up the protests.
“The apparent lack leadership to the protests is both a blessing and a curse to the authorities: on the one hand, the government may see the absence of clear organization as reason to hope that they will subside – or be put down – sooner rather than later,” Rafati says.
“On the other hand, the scale and scope of the unrest as well as the varied demands raised by the protesters make it more difficult to make tangible concessions that would address their grievances.”
Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region.