Washington, D.C – “Public dialogue with the (Iranian) state occurs through protest and those protests force changes to come about,” observed Sanam Anderlini, Executive Director and cofounder of the International Civil Society Action Network, speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by the National Iranian American Council. “Each time there are protests, the regime gives some space and the public moves along, and there is an accommodation” that pushes the country in a more progressive direction.
Narges Bajoghli, research associate at the Watson Institute at Brown University, outlined how the protests began. On December 28th, she said, hardliners in Mashhad attempted to mobilize protests against Iranian President Rouhani and his economic policies. The protests, coordinated to take place ahead of an annual pro-government rally marking the suppression of the Green Movement post-election protests in 2009 and 2010, quickly escalated. The instigators “couldn’t control the slogans, so eventually protests came out
against the system as a whole, not just President Rouhani.”
Political factionalism played a major role in the protests according to Bajoghli. She pointed to President Rouhani’s budget proposal to the Majles on December 10th, 2017 where, “he named the main conservative foundations in the country that were receiving blocks of money without any oversight,” referring to these entities as a “financial mafia.” In response, various groups retaliated with sophisticated media campaigns intended to give the impression of “grassroots videos and testimonies against Rouhani.”
Bajoghli emphasized the Iranian economy, “which has been in a spiral due to mismanagement and a lack of sanctions alleviations,” as a major motivation for the protests. Over the past several years, she said, Iranians have struggled with rampant inflation, astronomically high costs of living, and high rates of unemployment and underemployment particularly among women and young people.
Bajoghli also observed that Iranians are frustrated with the lack of promised economic benefits under the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement which was initially overwhelmingly supported by Iranians. Sanctions relief obstacles under the deal, and the hostile rhetoric of the Trump administration, have helped create a situation in which 67% of Iranians no longer believe that it is worthwhile to engage with the international community to further their interests. Anderlini also discussed how sanctions against Iran have empowered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other state-connected elements at the expense of independent actors ever since their imposition under the Clinton administration. “The minute you impose economic sanctions,” she said, “…you reduce the capacity of independent actors to engage and you take away a lot of the transparent ways to transfer money.”
In his analysis of the U.S response, Reza Marashi, the current Research Director at NIAC and former official in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, juxtaposed the Obama administration’s measured response in 2009 against the Trump Administration’s in 2017. He cited the current administration’s poor wording, and the presumptive nature in which Trump appeared to speak for the Iranian people as to what the sentiments of these protests were. He also characterized the administration’s timing to sanction the Iranian ballistic missile program as overwhelmingly unproductive and unhelpful for Iranian protests, “Rule Number one is do no harm…Don’t gien an excuse [to blame protests on foreign influence], Do No Harm.”
Anderlini contextualized the Iranian government’s response to the protest, saying the regime’s ultimate goal is survival, “but there is a recognition, that to survive they are going to have to be responsive to what the public is asking for.” According to Bajoghli, the political response in Iran to the protests have been markedly different than previous engagement toward major demonstrations because of the breadth of constituencies involved. “Unlike the 2009 protests, in which the political establishment eventually decided they should be suppressed, in this protest almost all factions have said publicly ‘we should let the people protest and let the people air their grievances’ because no one wanted to be seen as suppressing their base.” Summarizing the importance but also the limitations of the demonstrations, Bajoghli observed, “Protesting does not equal revolution; it does not equal regime change…This is a way in which the people [of Iran] can communicate with the state.”