Reports suggest small leaderless protests unlikely to threaten government
Information about the protests in Iran is very difficult to assess because for the moment it is very sparse.
It appears the protests began in the city of Mashhad on 28th December 2017. They have however continued and have spread elsewhere though they appear so far to be on a small scale.
Most reports say that the trigger for the protests was economic grievances, with particular stress being given to the 40% shock increase in egg and poultry prices, which was announced last week.
Undoubtedly there is some truth to this but it must be heavily qualified.
The reality is that contrary to some reports Iran’s economy is currently doing very well and after several years of recession which did cause living standards to fall is now actually in the throws of a boom, with double digit growth rates being recorded during the last two years.
Whilst it is said that the benefits of this boom have yet to reach the wider population, the boom has now been underway for almost two years, making it most unlikely that however unevenly its benefits are distributed the wider population has experienced no benefit from it at all.
The history of inflation in Iran is that Iran has experienced double digit inflation continuously since 1973, when the quadrupling of oil prices that year taken together with the former Shah’s runaway industrialisation programme pushed annual inflation up from its previous trend rate of 3% to an average annual rate over the next four years of more than 15%.
Inflation remained at an annual rate of around 15% in every remaining year of the Shah’s rule except for 1978.
The Iranian Revolution and the war with Iraq in the 1980s then caused inflation to go higher, so that it rose to an average annual rate between 1980 and 1988 of 18%.
In the succeeding period of economic liberalisation under President Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997 inflation went higher still, hitting an average annual rate of 25%, and peaking in 1996 at 50% (still an inflation record in Iran).
In the succeeding reformist period of President Khatami from 1997 to 2005 average annual inflation fell to 16%, only to rise again during the succeeding more conservative period under President Ahmadinejad from 2005 to 2013 when it went up to an annual average of 17.7%, peaking at 35% in 2013, the year Ahmadinejad left office.
Compared to this record, the situation under President Rouhani is better on the inflation front than it has been at any time since the early 1970s, with average annual inflation in the four years since he became President falling to 12% and falling to just 9% in the Iranian year ending in March 2017.
Whilst this is still a high rate of inflation by international standards, the combination of a rapidly growing economy and a falling inflation rate makes it extremely doubtful that the population as a whole is currently coming under more severe economic pressure than it has been before. On the contrary it is more likely that after years of contracting living standards caused by the recession more Iranians are now starting to feel better off.
That does not of course mean that some sections of the population may not be finding conditions difficult, and as many correctly point out the still sharp rise in Iran’s working age population means that the fast economic growth of the last two years has still left Iran with an unemployment rate at 12%.
That unemployment rate, though high by the standards of the developed economies, is not however high for Iran’s region (in Turkey the unemployment rate is 11%, in Egypt it is 12% and in Saudi Arabia it is 12.7%).
Though it is understandable therefore that the sharp increase in egg and poultry prices – supposedly caused by a cull triggered by an epidemic of bird flu – may have annoyed many people, it looks like a temporary price blip in an otherwise improving inflation and economic picture.
Exactly this point has been made by Iran’s Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, who Fars is reported as saying
the prices of several commodities may have seen a rise due to some incidents, and each case has its own reason
If economic grievances were indeed what originally lay behind the protests, then these improving conditions suggest that the protests will not go on for very long, especially as the growing economy and the recent rise in oil prices have given the government the means to improve the economic conditions of the protesters.
Vice-President Jahangiri in the same interview which I have just quoted is already reported as saying that the government is prepared to take steps to mitigate the effect of the recent rise in egg and poultry prices, presumably by importing more of these products from abroad.
If economic dissatisfaction does not fully explain the protests, what are the other reasons for them?
There have been some suggestions that the original protests in Mashhad – a politically conservative city – were originally orchestrated by conservative opponents of President Rouhani from within the clerical establishment.
Some reports say that this is Rouhani’s view and that it is also the view of some other senior Iranian officials, with fingers supposedly being pointed at the conservatives who supposedly instigated the protests, with complaints being made that the counter revolutionary slogans chanted by some of the protesters during the protests show that the conservative instigators of the protests have lost control over the protests.
Whilst there may be some truth to this, the single factor which almost certainly set the scene for the protests is that this is a time of the year when large numbers of Iranians are likely to be on the streets anyway.
The day which in the Western calendar is 30th December is the day when conservative supporters of the Iranian government annually mobilise in their millions to commemorate a large demonstration staged on 30th December 2009 in response to the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ protests which took place in Iran in 2009.
It looks as if celebration of the anniversary of this demonstration this year has triggered counter protests by opponents of the government, which have been given an extra twist this year by the anger many people feel at the sharp rise in egg and poultry prices.
However another factor behind the protests almost certainly is the international situation.
The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia supposedly reached a secret agreement last month to combine forces in an attempt to reverse the growth of Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Reports of this agreement may have given encouragement to pro-Western opponents of the government within Iran – of whom there are known to be some – encouraging them to come out to protest.
Besides it is a certainty that the US and its allies have their own covert networks of supporters within Iran who were doubtless activated to support and take over the protests as soon as they began.
Many of course go further still and believe that the anti-government part of protests has been entirely orchestrated by the US and its allies as part of a classic US regime change/’colour revolution’ operation.
That is certainly possible, there being after all ample precedent for it. However it is always important to remember when making this claim that the US can only do this sort of thing in another country when there are already people there ready to work with it.
Outlining the various likely reasons for the protests however shows why – if the intention really is to topple the government – they are most unlikely to succeed.
The very fact that the US – and Donald Trump in particular – are backing the protests, and the widespread and probably justified suspicion within Iran and around the world that the US has a hand in them is certain to alarm many Iranians, deterring them from supporting the protests and causing them to rally behind the government.
Ultimately, with the protests small and scattered, with the government retaining the support of a critical mass of the Iranian population, with the economy strong and growing rapidly, and with the security forces completely loyal to the government, the Iranian government should have no trouble riding these protests out.
The key is to avoid overreaction, which is all but guaranteed to provoke more protests, whilst at the same time remaining firm and making no unnecessary concessions, which would be taken as a sign of weakness, and which would therefore also encourage more protests.
The Iranian government showed in 2009 that it has the knowledge and the skill to handle these sort of protests, and I have little doubt it will successfully do so again, especially with the protests this time being on a much smaller scale and without visible leadership.
If so then before long the protests will subside, with this probably becoming increasingly apparent over the next few days.