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.