By Daniel Brumberg
The widespread protests caused by the Iranian government’s decision on November 15 to raise the price of gasoline by a whopping 50 percent have generated a flurry of speculation about their wider political implications for Iran’s rulers. What does seem clear, as several Iran experts have noted, is that these protests were in some sense unprecedented. In a matter of hours, they spread to some 100 cities, including southern Tehran. The protesters set fire to myriad institutions that many Iranians associate with the regime, including banks and Friday prayer halls, and many of them denounced Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and called for the downfall of the regime. This spasm of popular resistance was far more extensive than the protests of 2018 and early 2019.
In fact, in both geographical and political terms, the demonstrations rivaled—and perhaps even surpassed—the 2009 June “Green Movement” that brought hundreds of thousands into Tehran’s streets. The Iranian government’s decision to shut down the internet in the entire country—a first for any developing nation—underscored the regime’s perception that the protesters posed a dire security and political threat, one that had to be met with decisive and massive force.
Most Iran experts would also agree that the government’s violent response achieved its desired goal: to restore order and, in so doing, signal that any renewal of the protests would not be tolerated. The killing of some 143 protesters, according to Amnesty International, was itself a sign of just how threatened the regime felt. In fact, it had tried to avoid killing large numbers of Iranians lest it be accused of perpetrating the kinds of massacres that helped set the stage for the fall of the shah in 1978. Wagering that it had no choice but to use a heavy-handed approach, for the time being the regime has prevailed. The partial restoring of the internet (and threat to close it down permanently) suggests that its strategy to contain growing anger among the very classes on which the regime has tried to sustain its revolutionary legitimacy is meeting with some success.
The bigger question is whether the protests will produce a wider political movement, one that has the support of an urban professional and business middle class that remains reluctant and/or incapable of challenging the regime. This reluctance is entirely understandable. Over the last few years the security apparatus has been upgraded by a government that believes—not without reason—that it is facing a US-led economic war whose ultimate aim is to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran. This fear feeds the deeply held view that foreign forces are the real instigators of all protests, including those that have shaken Iran-backed governments in Lebanon and Iraq. But neither brute force nor cash transfers into the accounts of those Iranians most affected by price increases will provide what Iran needs most: a renegotiation of the social and political contract. The problem for the regime (and the opposition) is that its securitization of the political arena is closing the door to any form of peaceful political accommodation. This may be welcome news for those who imagine that Iran is ripe for a new revolution. But the more likely outcome is that the Islamic Republic will deteriorate into a security state that will be incapable of solving the basic problem of political representation.
A Fraying Ruling Bargain
Since the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the country’s leaders have provided the promise of economic security, jobs, and a basic level of social justice in return for citizen support—or at least acquiescence. This ruling bargain is literally fueled by oil. But it is also justified by an official religious doctrine that has been articulated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies in the clerical and political institutions. It is enforced by a powerful security establishment led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and allies in the police and intelligence forces. This patronage system was also buttressed by the incorporation of a state-controlled electoral system that allows elites representing diverse constituencies the opportunity to negotiate over a range of issues, including economic policy.
This semi-authoritarian system gave the regime a means of managing conflicts so long as two conditions obtained: oil income kept flowing and elected leaders (and their allies in the press, universities, and business community, among others) did not reject the legitimacy of the state itself. The repression of the 2009 Green Movement underscored this system’s limits to dissent, especially by a vast urban middle class. By dint of its education, professions, and exposure to global forces, this middle class seeks not merely economic goods but also the intellectual benefits that come from working in parliament, universities, the media, the legal profession, and other vocations that require a minimal degree of free speech and discussion.
Over the last years, this ruling bargain has frayed to the point that it may be impossible to restore. The key driver of this development has been a growing economic crisis whose most visible manifestations are escalating inflation rates, rising unemployment (10.5 percent nationally last September with 26 percent among youth), a plummeting national currency, the rial, and an increasing poverty rate. With 75 percent of Iran’s 83 million people living in urban areas, this downward spiral has made life difficult precisely in those areas whose educated residents have access to cell phones and the internet and, further, to city streets and squares that offer a potential avenue for mobilizing mass protests.
There is little doubt that the sanctions imposed by the Trump White House have made it much harder to sustain the massive spending required to fund the ruling bargain. Faced by a sharp decline in oil exports (down to an available 350,000 bpd in November after domestic consumption), the Iranian government has been pressed to reduce expenditures. The latter include a direct monthly cash handout of $10.80 (455,000 rials) each to some 78 million Iranians as well as a huge subsidy for fuel.
Three days after the gasoline price increase, the government announced a compensation plan designed to assist low income families. Why it failed to make this announcement in tandem with the price increases is a mystery, particularly since it appears that the government had prepared this plan in advance. Still, it is unlikely that any promise to compensate those most harmed by the price increases would have made much difference since, in fact, the protesters’ actions signaled fundamental political concerns. The burning of hundreds of banks and government buildings, according to a government minister underscores escalating anger with what is widely perceived as a corrupt and unaccountable political elite. Echoing the deeper political grievances of so many other protesters in the Middle East and beyond, many of Iran’s demonstrators assailed the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and its top leaders, from Khamenei on down. As one Washington-based Iran expert put it, the protesters struck at the “heart of the regime’s revolutionary legitimacy.”
From Legitimacy Crisis to What?
The road from a legitimacy crisis to regime change or transformation is long and uncertain. Along the way three possibilities may emerge. The first, which is most likely, is a further hardening of the regime and a closure of the existing political arena. The second, which could actually emerge as a consequence of the first, is a gradual (if de facto) process of political liberalization whose parameters and limits would be negotiated and fought over by rival political leaders. The last and least likely possibility is regime collapse followed by a democratic revolution.
A further closure of an already stifled political arena is not without risks. As the clampdown on the opposition that followed the 2009 protests demonstrated, efforts by hard-liners to shut down all dissent and exclude reformist leaders and parties from the political arena can have the unintended effect of denuding the system of the very institutions that provide a mechanism for managing and deflecting conflict. Deprived of the mechanism, the gap between regime and society expanded, thus setting the stage for the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and the subsequent effort to strengthen a fractured reformist camp. But Iran’s intervention in Syria and the widening war in Iraq against the so-called Islamic State—coupled with the backlash from hard-line forces that followed the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement—had the effect of sidelining reformist forces. Their fate seemed practically sealed two years later, when the Trump Administration’s decision to abandon the nuclear agreement and reimpose sanctions not only pulled the rug out from under Rouhani, but it all but guaranteed that hard-liners would exploit his misfortunes to assert even greater control over the political and economic system.
The hard-liners’ efforts were abetted by a strengthening of the security apparatus that had in fact begun following the 2009 uprising. The regime expanded the police (the “Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” or NAJA) by increasing their numbers, building new police stations, and creating in Tehran some 400 patrolling units in 375 neighborhoods. These actions were clearly designed to make it difficult for middle class protest in the political heartland of Iran. Fast forward to 2018, when in the wake of countrywide protests, especially in rural areas—the backbone of the regime—the parliament authorized a 400 percent weapons increase for NAJA. If, as it appears, it was NAJA forces rather than the IRGC or Basij forces that led the recent (and ongoing) repression of protests, this development would only underscore the prospects for a wider securitization of the political system.
As noted above, Iran’s recent history suggests that a further hardening of the regime could have the unintended effect of reopening the door to the now isolated reformists. The power and authority of Iran’s supreme leader and his office—already greatly debilitated—could be eroded if he finds himself dependent on one key faction and thus incapable of posing as the ultimate arbiter of the political field. But as his recent uncompromising statements make clear, Khamenei’s number one priority is reasserting control. This requires a close alliance with the IRGC, even if such an entente could further isolate the supreme leader and the office he embodies.
The second scenario is a reassertion of reformist influence through the existing electoral system. While Iran’s experience demonstrates that reformists can sometimes mobilize support in ways that surprise both them and their potential followers, reformist leaders are not well positioned to leverage the protests. They are not only divided; in the wake of protests that featured attacks on government institutions, reformist leaders appear reluctant to speak out in a manner that might identify them with the protesters. However justified they may be, the demonstrators’ actions have played well into the hands of hard-liners and the supreme leader, who has painted the protesters as witting or unwitting agents of foreign forces determined to spread chaos. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that the protesters command equal support across the ideological and social spectrum of Iran’s complex society. Fear of disorder should never be underestimated—a point that was suggested by at least one public opinion poll conducted by the University of Maryland, which reported that some 66 percent of the sample believes that the police handled the 2017-2018 protests “very well” or “somewhat well.”
It is not yet known whether the recent protests have provoked similar concerns about public order. What is clear is that the demonstrators’ actions—coupled with the hard-liners’ efforts to depict them as foreign agents—have left Rouhani with little room to maneuver. With hard-liners on the march and a leaderless protest movement whose ardent youth have rebelled against the system itself, he has chosen to emulate and amplify Khamenei’s verbal assaults. Thus, while insisting that the right to legal protest must be respected, Rouhani has not hesitated1 to back Khamenei.
For those Iranians and their supporters who believe and assert that the only path forward is “to move beyond the Islamic Republic toward a radical redistribution of wealth and power,” Rouhani’s statement is positive proof that the system cannot be changed from within. Indeed, the discrediting and isolation of the reformists will reduce the political conflict to a polarized contest that could only invite more violence, thus precluding an even limited reopening of the political system down the road. Iran’s hard-liners might welcome such an outcome even if it comes at the cost of making Iran increasingly ungovernable.
The Dangerous Irrelevance of US Policy toward Iran
Responding to the protests, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the “US is with You, the US Supports You,” addressing the protesters. He then followed up this declaration with another tweet, inviting Iranians to send video documentation of the crackdown to the US government. Whether these tweets help or harm Iran’s demonstrators is a matter of debate. But what is sure is that Iran’s hard-liners will make every effort to ensure the failure of what they call the “western conspiracy” to bring chaos. A country under the thumb of a paranoid security apparatus that, among other things, has effectively taken hostage no less than 13 Iranians with binational citizenship will not bend to the White House’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
On the contrary, both at home and abroad, the IRGC is pushing back with its own pressure campaign. The Trump Administration has embraced the protesters’ cause. For the United States and the White House, in particular, this approach brings little risk or costs. But for those Iranians who seek some path forward, a precarious US-Iranian stalemate is bad news. What Iranian protesters and their cohorts in the wider region need is the political space and will to forge an exit ramp off the highway of escalating conflict. Sadly, none of the regional powers favor such an outcome. As for the United States, it is largely out of the game.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, where this article was originally published.