By Eric Vandenbroeck 2 Jan. 2018

It would be somewhat ironic if Iran, in its most strategically advantageous position in the Middle East since 2010, when it was expected it would press its advantage in the region in the year ahead is forced to put its ambitions aside to deal with unrest at home.

The anti-government rallies first erupted in the second-largest city of Mashhad, prompted by anger over the high cost of living, rising unemployment and the overall state of the economy under the government of President Hassan Rouhani. They quickly spread to other parts of Iran and turned political, with some protesters chanting slogans against Iran's foreign policy, as well as against Khamenei and Rouhani. Apparently, hen after the U.S. lifted sanctions on Iran in 2015, the Iranian government promised a big economic boom for everyone, and while this benefitted some, ordinary Iranians weren't noticing the benefits.

Clear is that the Iranian regime was surprised by the mass protest and in its first reaction was trying to contain it through preventive arrests and crackdown on social media while initially trying to avoid violent response against protesters. But with more than 15 dead overnight the regime is moving to a hard line hoping to quell the demonstrations with President Hassan Rouhani announcing that the nation would deal with "rioters and lawbreakers".

Few people in the West are aware that the history of what is now known as Iran is a history of various ethnic groups, languages, and cultures coexisting amongst one another.

With the difference that the current demonstrations are on focused on Tehran but started in Mashhad, and from there, as shown on the above map, speed country wide, the protests in some ways are also an echo of the near past. In the summer of 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rhetoric and policies had isolated their country for four years.

And just like in 2009, both protesters and security forces are attempting to leverage social media for their benefit. The apps Telegram and Instagram have been temporarily restricted by the Iranian government amid this week’s protests, the BBC reported.

But as noted, the protests are different in that they have covered more geography, engulfing small and midsize cities across the country. But they also have reportedly drawn smaller turnouts than the massive 2009 election protests in Tehran. Although more information is needed about the makeup of the demonstrators, significant differences have emerged. Iranian reformists and middle-class residents in large urban areas are reported to have largely steered clear this time around.

It's not that the many segments of the Iranian middle class are content with current conditions in Iran, the government or regime. Rather, they are ambivalent about the drivers behind the protests and implications for their personal security.

Also missing is organizational leadership. This is partly due to the suppression of independent labor and nongovernmental organizations, which could provide conduits for citizens to air their grievances and demands to the government.

Iran’s economy, heavily focused on the oil industry, has been a mess for a long time - marked particularly by high levels of inflation, unemployment, and inequality. Iran’s president, the relatively reformist Hassan Rouhani, has made improving Iran’s economy one of the core parts of his political identity.

Rouhani sold the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and several other international powers, his biggest accomplishment to date, as an economic measure. Rouhani argued that relief from US and European sanctions, offered in exchange for tight restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development, would lead to boom times. He won his reelection bid, in May 2017, in no small part due to these promises.

Rouhani has had some successes, most notably in curbing inflation and improving economic growth. But he has yet to deliver the fundamental change he promised; the most recent World Bank data put unemployment around 12.7 percent, and poverty rates actually increased under Rouhani. In December 2017, he announced a budget that proposed a hike in gas prices, which — given the central role of gas in Iran’s economy more broadly, would hit Iran’s working class.

Prices of basic goods had, in the past year, increased by roughly 40 percent. At the same time, Iran had a stroke of bad luck: An outbreak of bird flu forced the country to slaughter some 17 million chickens. The hen shortage produced by the cull, combined with Rouhani’s budget, caused egg prices to spike by 50 or even 100 percent, depending on which estimate you use.

The price of eggs became a symbol for Iran’s broader economic problems, and the failure of the Rouhani government to solve them. When protesters first assembled on December 2018 in Mashhad, this is what their chanting focused on, saying things like, “No to high prices,” and, “Death to Rouhani.”

But, there is also a theory among some Iran watchers that these protests weren’t spontaneous — that they were actually organized by conservative Iranian politicians. Mashhad is dominated by a conservative religious charity, whose directors are aligned with Rouhani’s enemies. It’s not crazy to think that they were exploiting Iran’s economic woes to undermine the president’s support.

“It probably had the support of hardliners there,” Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, says of the initial protest. “It’s hard to imagine that authorities would have allowed this protest to take place. And the kind of finger pointing, which is solely targeting Rouhani, is rare.”

This theory is hard to prove. But if it’s true, then it backfired terribly.

It started to go wrong for them, experts say, when more and more people joined the Mashhad protests. These newcomers shifted the tone of the protest blaming Rouhani for the poor economic performance to blaming the Iranian government and political system more broadly.

Then the protests began spreading to dozens of towns and cities across Iran. By January 2, protests had been recorded “in nearly every province” in the country, according to the Associated Press. And these protests were targeting not just the Rouhani presidency but the Islamic Republic itself — chanting, “Death to the dictator” (referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), and, “Death to the Revolutionary Guard,” referring to Iran’s security forces. They’ve also called out the government’s support for the Assad regime, questioning why Iran is spending money there when there are problems at home.

The socioeconomic roots of the protests, in short, have now linked up with deeper political dissatisfaction with a government that has failed to deliver on its promises to make ordinary Iranians’ lives better.

Key figures within the regime have stepped in to take sides, with Rouhani calling on the regime to provide the protesters with a platform and to hear their voice. The protests, Rouhani explained in an appearance on state TV, aren’t simply about the economy but also transparency and corruption. At the same time, hardliners blame Rouhani for focusing his attention on building ties with the West and implementing the nuclear deal, instead of providing for his people. But as the world watches Iran, it’s paying attention to the United States, too.

Thus what America says and does will also have an impact on what happens next. Although one thing one can say with certainty of course, no matter what we say and do, the regime will seek to blame the United States for the protests.

What deserves watching, however, is that the anti-government protests in Iran could offer President Donald Trump a new reason to scrap the Iran nuclear deal later this month, a risky move that Trump’s supporters are cheering but that critics warn could play into Tehran’s hands.

Nevertheless, the Washington debate, is a bit of a sideshow. The US has some influence, but this is first and foremost a struggle between ordinary Iranians and their government. The protests will succeed or fail based not on what happens in Washington, but on what happens in Iran.

It also should be noted that Mashad, where the protests started is controlled by the hardliners (to weaken the government of President Hassan Rouhani). So are we dealing with protests that started one way but then as it widened and people in other cities joined it gradually started to move in another direction?

As for where this is going, we know that at least 20 people have since been killed in clashes with security forces, and hundreds of mostly young people have been arrested, per news reports. This came as the dreaded Revolutionary Guard stepped in and warned that detained protesters could face the death penalty. I, therefore, think the protests will decidedly slow down from here on. Another reason for that is because of the lack of an identified general leader.

A final test will come on Friday, 5 Jan. If the anti-government movement fails to bring masses out to the streets after Friday prayers, it will continue to fade further.

This said, even if the current protests are about to peter out, in the long term, the working-class anger behind the current unrest in Iran will pose a potent challenge to Tehran’s ruling clerics as economic and social pressures mount. Much now depends on how the different power centers in Iran confront the crisis, whether they blame each other and tackle the symptoms rather than the cause.