The 2015 nuclear agreement signed by Iran and several world powers, including the U.S., was heralded internationally not only as a way to freeze the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, but also domestically as a way to open up Iran’s moribund economy. At first, there were signs this was precisely what would happen: U.S., European, Russian, and Chinese companies all signed agreements with Iran. The World Bank estimated Iran’s economy grew 6.4 percent in 2016, on the back of 9.2 percent growth in the second quarter of the year. And there was hope the new openness would mark a new era of entrepreneurship.
Except none of this was quite enough to stop the nationwide protests that began December 28 over jobs and the cost of living.
The first sign something could be wrong came in the May 2017 presidential election. Hassan Rouhani, the reformist president who had championed the nuclear agreement, was re-elected by wide margin—56 percent of the vote over the 50.7 percent he got in 2013. But two weeks before the election, polls showed him in trouble against his more conservative challengers. His rivals asked why Rouhani hadn’t been able to deliver the kind of economic benefits the nuclear agreement was supposed to bring. That message resonated with many poorer Iranians whose lives hadn’t meaningfully changed since the lifting of some international sanctions. There were still not enough jobs and the price of essential goods were high. (Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, wrote at the time that Rouhani ultimately won by attracting the voters of Iran’s reformist movement who might otherwise have stayed home on election day.)