All eyes are on Iran. On December 28, as if from nowhere, protests broke out in Iran’s second most populous city, Mashhad – out in the far east, near the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan border. The protests moved with deliberate speed across the country, to Kermanshah in the west and Bandar Abbas in the south. Tehran was not spared, although it is not the epicentre of the protests. This is unlike the Green Movement of 2009, when Tehran’s reform minded citizens came onto the streets angry with what they saw as a stolen election. It is unlike the student uprisings of 1999, again centred in Tehran, when students protested over the closure of the reform newspaper Salam.
Those were protests of a rising middle-class, throttled by social sanctions and by political limitations. Their protests culminated in the election of President Hassan Rouhani, who is the current standard bearer of their hopes. Social sanctions have been eased in Tehran – women openly sit in public without the veil (the police in Tehran had said earlier last year that they would not arrest women who did not wear the hijab). Even political rights are now somewhat available to the reformers. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the National Security Council, said that restrictions on imprisoned reformist leaders would be lifted.
The current wave of protests is characterised not so much by a desire for an expanded political system, the terms of previous ‘reform’ protests. This is an upsurge against the privations in Iran – unemployment, deprivation and hopelessness. The sharpness of the slogans – even against the Supreme Leader of the country – indicates the level of anger at the failure of the Islamic Republic to deliver the basic needs of a growing and youthful population. The protests were no surprise to those who had watched almost weekly working-class actions in factories and oil facilities as well as protests by retirees and those who had lost money in the banking crisis. These actions raised the confidence of the working-class and the lower middle class, both of whom had seen their standard of living plummet.
What is taking place in Iran is not unlike what is taking place across the oil-producing states from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia. Oil prices began to drop sharply in the second half of 2014 as a result of high output from Saudi Arabia and their Gulf allies. Iraqi and Libyan oil production had fallen, so it appeared on the surface that the Saudis and their Gulf allies were merely covering that shortfall. But as supply far outpaced demand the volume of oil that the Gulf countries produced seemed to have a political motive. It hurt Iran, already wracked by the UN, European Union and US sanctions, but it also hit Russia and Venezuela. The West and the Saudis saw these three countries – Iran, Russia and Venezuela – as adversaries. It was quite clear that this was a political move.