Are the Iran Protests Really Driven Exclusively by US Sanctions?
This article was published on Al Bawaba – December 15, 2019
In November, tens and thousands of Iranians began to take to the streets to protest a 50% rise in gasoline prices. The result was security forces cracking down as quickly as they could to ensure their discontent wouldn’t make international headlines, fomenting the protests further.
More than 100 demonstrators have been killed and thousands have been arrested, according to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran. However, it’s difficult to measure the extent of the repression the Iranian protesters are facing.
Leaked footage shows they were found bloody on the streets and they were arrested arbitrarily by police, but Iranian officials dismiss the numbers by human rights organizations as being merely “speculative.”
Leaked footage shows they were found bloody on the streets and they were arrested arbitrarily by police
President Hassan Rouhani blamed the discontent among Iran’s population on “subversive elements” acting on a plan elaborated by Iran’s foreign enemies. Specifically, Rouhani is referring to sanctions by the United States after exiting the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, under pressure from Israel.
The Iranian government now fears the protests will be used as a weapon for regime change, after crippling the Iranian economy. As a reaction, Rouani’s government – once described as “moderate” – has shifted to Islamic hard-liners to unify the country against a perceived foreign menace.
Iran is one of the most authoritarian places on the planet and social and political repression is rife – Tallha Abdulrazaq
Analysts who have a more sympathetic view of the protests, however, argue that the Iranian government’s repression and influence in the Middle East is also to blame for wide popular discontent. “Undoubtedly, US sanctions influenced the regime’s energy price hikes, but that was simply a trigger rather than the sum total of the Iranians’ grievances with their government.
Iran is one of the most authoritarian places on the planet and social and political repression is rife,” Tallha Abdulrazaq, a PhD student of Middle Eastern security and counterterrorism at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, who focuses particularly on Iraq and Iran, said.
Iranians were to some extent inspired by other protests taking place in the region, like in Lebanon and Iraq, where swaths of people are also protesting Iran-aligned governments.
“There is some evidence that the protests in Iraq and Lebanon influenced young Iranians,” Barbara Slavin, the Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and director of the future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in the United States, said.
There is some evidence that the protests in Iraq and Lebanon influenced young Iranians – Barbara Slavin
These analysts also argue the Iran protests, similarly to those taking place in Iraq and Lebanon, do not risk falling into sectarianism, but rather they seek to protest against a repressive theocracy.
“Iranians, whether Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, or Persians, have all come out to express their anger with the Mullahs,” Abdulrazaq said. “There is an anti-religious element in the protests, by which I mean opposition to organized, state-backed religion. Iranians are fed with up theocratic control and would prefer a more genuine democracy. Many agree with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq that religion should be a private matter, not exploited by the state,” Barbara added.
Iranians, whether Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, or Persians, have all come out to express their anger with the Mullahs – Abdulrazaq
Sistani is a Shia cleric, described as the spiritual leader of Iraq Shia Muslims, who has warned against Iran’s intervention in Iraq against protesters.
Like in neighboring Iraq, the majority of the protesters in Iran are Shia and therefore follow the state religion. Bur rather than fueling sectarianism, the protests are standing up to a severe economic condition coupled with repression by their government.
While US sanctions have caused economic discontent from outside, how the Iranian government decides to deal with internal dissent, in addition to frictions in Lebanon and Iraq, will represent a key test going into 2020.