For the past several days, Iranians have demonstrated against a government that has not delivered on promised economic improvement and against a regime whose ruling clerical class they despise.
The public's animosity against the existing order, as past protests indicate, is no surprise. Particular aspects of this latest series of demonstrations, however, invite a critical eye by Iran-watchers.
The current protests began, not as usual, in the Iran's capital, Tehran. The protests began in Mashhad, center of the wealthiest and most powerful religious foundation in the country. At first, the crowds were demonstrating for the long-promised but undelivered economic benefits that were supposed to follow the roll-back of internationally-applied sanctions against Iran, after the Obama administration delivered more than $150 billion to the Islamic Republic.
By the second night of protests, the demonstrators became more hostile and began to focus on political complaints. As a consequence, the regime may have viewed the spreading demonstrations more ominously.
In the past, demonstrations beginning in Tehran would then spread to smaller cities, provinces where non-Persian minorities were dominant, and then to rural regions. This time, it appears that rural citizens were in the streets early on. Also, the ongoing protests are not led or limited in large part to students and middle-class professionals, centered in northern Tehran. These protests also reportedly include laborers from South Tehran, usually the constituency of populist candidates such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (term: 2005-2013).
Anti-regime protestors in Kermanshah, Iran, on December 29, 2017. (Image source: VOA News/Wikimedia Commons)
The regime, for its part, while quick to mobilize security forces and counter-demonstrations, has been slow to employ lethal suppressive measures. However, security forces, such as agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), are photographing the protests, enabling police later to arrest leaders of the protests, violence-prone demonstrators, and those holding aloft political and anti-regime placards.
The protests, like many past eruptions in Iran, are not tightly coordinated, and lack recognized leaders and a common agenda. The regime will, of course try, to weather this latest round of protests while arresting leading agitators, to be followed by torture, "recanting" show-trials, and executions.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.