An Iranian upheaval, between popular claims and external confrontations

Author : Clara CHPOUN.

Since the 28th of last December, Iran falls prey to a massive popular discontent. The country has known 5 days of demonstrations, the violence of which caught the world in shock[1]. The people of Iran are demanding the recovery of an economy affected by the Western sanctions of 2012 and the fall in the price of oil in 2014, and they undermine Iran’s foreign policy in this time of crisis.

A spontaneous popular outburst

Starting from Machhad –the country’s second city after the capital Teheran-, the demonstrations erupted in 40 cities, mostly situated in provinces. Those gatherings seem to have happened in a period time of five days. It is in fact difficult to know the exact duration of the events and their extent as the Iranians could only access social medias –real window on the world- intermittently, the Iranian authority having decided to limit their access during this period[2]. A handful of demonstrators gathered in the capital, which seems to have been spared from the violence of the events. Yet, it is the central government that is criticized. At the Head of the State, the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei who called upon public order on the 2nd of January 2018, threatening to use extreme severity otherwise ; and the President Hassan Rohani torn between internal stakes and external influence peddling. The toll of death –reaching 21 people including 16 demonstrators- shows the violence of the events. The demonstrators have attacked, sometimes burned, public buildings and religious centers to show their discontent. In response, they faced the repression of security forces promised by the Supreme Guide if peace would not come back. This threat turned into sanctions as a thousand people have been arrested following the events. With hindsight, it seems that this popular outburst did not have specific leaders and was rather the result of a general despair that expressed itself spontaneously. Many young people and women coming from middle and lower classes took part in the demonstrations. There were also gatherings in areas highly populated by sunnis and kurds, the country’s minorities.

The Iranian economy, a fertile soil for contestations

These demonstrations took place in a difficult economic environment. As a reminder, the Iranian economy is severely mired since the occidental sanctions of 2012[3]. The energy, finance and transport sectors were mainly affected by those sanctions. In parallel with those measures –or as a consequence-, the country must face massive unemployment, particularly among the younger populations. The unemployment rate reaches 11,7% in 2017 and up to 26,7% for the young people from 15 to 24 years old. Iran’s demography is dominated by the youth –30% of the population is under 20 years old[4]-, which explains why youth’s unemployment is a subject of matter in the public affairs. It also explains the significant presence of this population among the demonstrators.

Furthermore, Iran is a rentier State[5]. As such, it has inevitably suffered from the occidental boycott of 2012. In the period from 2012 to 2016, the Iranian exports of oil decreased of 50%. In 2014, the Islamic Republic must face a second hard blow for its oil economy : the oil stock price went from $110 to under $50. At this point, the Iranian economy is severely mired. In addition, the country must face an alarming rate of inflation –another consequence of the occidental sanctions. In 2013, this rate had gone up to 39%. In 2016, the inflation is at a rate of 8,5%, which is still high, especially compared to rates of other regions such as the European Union that has a rate of 0,22%. It is the inflation that sparked the recent events in Iran and that gave a name to this uprising, “The revolution of eggs”. The contestations came from the rise in eggs and oil prices, and inevitably found a fertile soil in the country’s economic difficulties. The rise in prices was not the only trigger, as the State decided to reduce social aid to retired people.

Should the Iranian authority refocus its efforts inside its borders ?

The social tensions stemming from economic difficulties are causing political and geopolitical tensions as well. More than a re-assessment of the form of the power, it is the efficacy of the government in resolving the country’s difficulties that is criticized. In 2013, Hassan Rohani is elected as President of the Iranian State. He appears as a reformist that will open the country to the world. He promises to redress the country’s economy following the occidental sanctions, promise he will commit to with the nuclear agreement concluded with the Western forces in July 2015. This agreement ought to alleviate some economic penalties from Western countries towards Iran, and since 2015, the Iranian economy seems to have stabilized which the decrease in inflation and unemployment rates can assess. The recovery is not happening fast enough for the population ; nevertheless, there is progress and Hassan Rohani gets reelected in May 2017. The credibility of the Iranian authority is at stake now both on the economical and geopolitical level. The Iranians are questioning the State’s military and financial commitment to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian’s presence in Syria in these times of economic difficulties. Bachar El-Assad is officially still Head of a State that has been in a civil war since 2011. Iran is part of the countries that do not want Bachar El-Assad to be dismissed from his position, and thus the latter can count on the support of the Islamic Republic on the international scene as well as on the fields of combat. The support given to the Hezbollah takes part, as well as the support brought to El-Assad’s Syria, of a reinforcement strategy of the Shia influence in the Middle East, designed to compete with the Sunni influence lead by Saudi Arabia. Those financial, and sometimes military, commitments –20 000 to 25 000 Iranian combatants on the Syrian territory according to estimates from march 2017- frustrate the Iranian population that considers that the emergency lies within the borders than outside of them.

[1] The last demonstrations of such violence happened during the Iranian Green Movement of 2009.

[2] The Iranian authority is pointing the finger at counter-revolutionary groups, accusing them to encourage violence during the demonstrations.

[3] That mainly affected exportations from Iran.

[4] In total, there are 24 million young people in the country.

[5] Oil revenues represent 20% of Iran’s GDP. What’s more, there is a paradox : the country has the 3rd known oil reserves, yet, it imports 40% of its need in gas.

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