Recent protests in numerous Iranian cities and towns caught the world by surprise, and embarrassed Iran’s government and ruling political establishment. But the expectation that the protests would escalate into a popular uprising and unravel the Islamic Republic did not come to pass. Iran’s rulers could take heart from that, but they cannot avoid the broader debates about the future of the Iranian economy and politics that the protests have set in motion.
These were economic protests. They reflected deep-seated frustration with economic stagnation, mismanagement and corruption, and growing income inequality along with conspicuous concentration of wealth at the top. And their geography spoke to the expanding gulf separating large urban centers, especially the capital city Tehran, from smaller towns and rural areas—which correspond roughly to Rouhani’s political base and that of his conservative and hardliner rivals, respectively. The protests swept through many of those small towns, and mobilized angry voices among the disgruntled lower wrung of society—those most closely associated with the message of the Revolution.
It is equally important to note what these protests were not. They were not a repeat of a past urban, secular uprising of affluent citizens demanding social and cultural change, freedom of expression, and political participation. And here lies the good news for the Islamic Republic. The most serious threats to the system have traditionally come when Tehran has risen in rebellion—as it did in June 2009 to protest the outcome of the presidential elections that year. At that point, throngs of students and cosmopolitan urbanites formed large crowds that presented an immediate threat to control of the city, and by implication the stability of the ruling order.
The important factor in the recent protests, and why they did not resemble the fight against tyranny Trump tried to portray in his tweets, is the dog that did not bark. The urban dissident voices did not join the populist call for economic justice. Why? First, urbanites, as note by the economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, have been the main beneficiaries of President Hassan Rouhani’s economic liberalization policies, like his talk of moderation, and have been the main backers of his pursuit of a nuclear deal. They had expected that the deal would end Iran’s international isolation, yield economic benefits, and also improve the political climate at home.
They saw in Rouhani an orderly path to change. Many among these urbanites actually feared that the protests could lead to chaos, or tilt Iranian politics in favor of their nemesis, the populist demagogue and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Without Tehran joining the protests, they never really posed an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. No regime is truly threatened unless it loses control of its urban areas, and most important among them, its capital city. Iran’s security forces were not organized to contain protests across a large number of small cities, and so were caught unprepared. Even so, without Tehran, the security forces could afford to think of the protests as small fires that would eventually burn themselves out—as they appear to have done.
Until and unless the urban middle classes and the poor join in common cause—as they did in 1979—there will be no revolution. And in this calculus of stability, it is more important to keep Tehran and the major urban centers happy. It is no coincidence that in his first public statement on the protests, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards tied the protesters to former President Ahmadinejad, hinting that he was being investigated for his role in the disturbances.
But it’s not just fears of a Jacobin uprising that have kept Tehran quiet; it’s also Rouhani’s political promise. Rouhani won presidential elections twice, in 2012 and 2015, both times owing to his popularity with urban middle classes—and his firm hold on Tehran’s vote. The protests showed that he is not popular with the poor, but that Tehran’s middle-class urbanites don’t share the same degree of dissatisfaction. If stability depends on Tehran, then the protests have only strengthened Rouhani’s political position.
Indeed, Rouhani’s agenda favors Tehran. He has cut subsidies while also raising fuel prices; he has failed to tackle corruption; and has fallen short on delivering on promises of an economic bonanza to follow the nuclear deal. Details of the budget were made public for the first time in December, causing an uproar on social media. Rouhani had hoped that transparency would show that his hands were tied, and that he was not free to divert funding from security forces and religious establishments to entitlement programs. But this did not spare him the wrath of the protesters.
Still Rouhani’s gambit may have paid off. The ruling political establishment may no longer be worried about a broader uprising, but it does have to worry about how the protests could influence upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. In fact, the first of the recent protests, in the holy city of Mashad, a bastion of conservatives and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s hometown, was instigated by Rouhani’s conservative critics as the opening act in their campaign to win back the presidency.
That move backfired as the protests spread quickly, gained in intensity, and turned against the political establishment as a whole. The demonstrations may have been contained for now, but the Islamic Republic will feel compelled to address the underlying economic grievances they have exposed. Failing to do so will risk opening a deep rift in the conservative camp, and the larger worry that if protests return, next time the urban middle class could react differently.
No one among Iran’s rulers is keen to turn to populism to silence the poor. That would mean another round of Ahmadinejad-style politics, which will further isolate Iran, weaken its economy, and alienate the urban middle class. Iran would then have traded potential stability in small towns for a more dangerous brand of urban political unrest of the kind the country witnessed in June 2009.
The only alternative is to continue with “Rouhaninomics,” a mix of liberalizing economic reform and restructuring—including curtailing the economic influence of sacred cow foundations and state institutions, and the Revolutionary Guards—and seeking to attract foreign investment by reducing international economic pressure. The hope would be that the economic strategy that won over the urban middle class can also assuage enough of the lower middle class and the poor to ensure political stability.
In his comments on the protests earlier this week, Rouhani acknowledged the economic grievances that fueled the disturbances, but added that people do not want to be dictated to about how to live. That was an important first step to cobble together an inclusive political platform that could bring together the disgruntled poor and his urban middle-class base.
There will be no radical shifts in the offing. There will be resistance to change, but inevitably, the larger debates now are about how to achieve greater economic growth. Those debates will not point to a clear path, but with the protests fresh in everyone’s mind, Rouhani will have the advantage. The protests did not topple the Islamic Republic but it may have more firmly set it on the course it embarked on when it elected Rouhani president in 2012.
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