On 28 December protests began across Iranian cities, with crowds chanting varied slogans expressing their frustration, both political and economic. Some cities saw explicitly anti-government chants, such as “bring back Reza Shah”, a cry for the return of Iran’s deposed monarchy, whereas others saw anger at Iran’s foreign involvement, with the line “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran only.” Western analysts have struggled to form a complete picture of events, with social media videos providing the main source of information. Almost every figure in Iranian politics has been targeted in protests, with many suggesting that both the clerical and political establishment has failed them.
The underlying factor behind these protests, however, is the dire economic situation that many Iranians find themselves in. Popular frustration at rising costs of living and economic disparity between the average Iranian and clerical elites has left many feeling let down by their government, which for many years has claimed to be the voice of the oppressed. Many young Iranians have been unable to find employment despite being well qualified. One Iranian stated: “I have three children in this society who are doctors and engineers. All three are unemployed.” Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President, described government corruption in December where “everyone has allocated a budget for himself.” But Rouhani himself has been the target of protests, with strong suggestions that the first protests were encouraged by Iranian hardliners as a way of undermining Rouhani, a moderate who has struggled with hardliners and conservatives within the Iranian establishment.
Some commentators have suggested the wider context to these protests is the long-term succession to the Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the overall authority in Iran. Rouhani has attempted to roll- back the economic control that Iranian hardliners had exerted for many years, and hardliners like previous President Ahmadinejad are increasingly worried that their control over Iran’s economic and political spheres is fading. One commentator has suggested that the protests were organised by the hardliners in response to Rouhani’s December budget which attempted to cut funding for hard-line institutions set up by Ahmadinejad. In a veiled attack on hardliners and the clerical establishment, Rouhani stated that “the problem is that we seek to impose our lifestyle on [younger] generations,” and also that the protests are a result of the gap between the authorities and younger generations, who make up the overwhelming majority of the protestors.
Dozens have been killed in the protests, which turned increasingly violent as the days went on, and a number of security personnel were among the dead and wounded. In recent days the protests have begun to wind-down after huge arrests.
Amid a number of reports of deaths in custody at the infamous Evin Prison, which also houses British citizen, Nazanin Zaghari- Ratcliffe, family members of those arrested have begun a vigil outside the gates, calling for the release of their loved ones.
The reaction from the western nations has been notably cautious, as the full implications of the protests remain unclear.
Iran, as a powerful nation within the region, one that has regularly clashed with the US, is of great strategic interest.