Iranians want jobs, but the regime is busy waging wars
Scott Peterson (Stark Reality)
Filed on January 04, 2018
"Leave Syria, find a solution for us!" is one chant heard on the streets, where social media and state television have shown buildings and cars on fire
The violent protests in Iran that entered their sixth day on Tuesday have brought to the surface several underlying and destabilising forces in Iranian society, among them anger at the top clerical leadership and a degree of resentment at some of the government's cherished foreign policy commitments.
The protests, which have delivered the worst scenes of unrest witnessed in the Islamic Republic since millions took to the streets over a disputed presidential vote in 2009, have so far left 22 people dead. They have also exposed a political miscalculation by hard-line foes of President Hassan Rouhani, by launching the protests in an effort to discredit his economic policies, then seeing them spin violently out of control.
Still, the protests are fundamentally about the economy more than anything else. Stubbornly high poverty and unemployment, the failure to extract a peace dividend from the much-heralded 2015 nuclear deal, and the continuing problem of entrenched corruption that was one of Rouhani's own rallying cries in the last election.
The protests began in the shrine city of Mashhad as an attempt by hard-line factions to undermine Rouhani.
But as they have morphed into a broader, nationwide public challenge against Iran's top leadership, protesters from even remote corners of the nation often considered to be bastions of regime support have torn down posters of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and chanted "Death to the Dictator!"
The numbers of people on the streets are far smaller than in 2009 - several tens of thousands in total, it appears this time - but the protests have been fuelled by a constellation of reasons for discontent, including Rouhani's latest austerity budget.
Still, in his first public comments since the violence began, Ayatollah Khamenei accused "the enemies of Iran, using various tools at their disposal, including money, weapons, political means and their security apparatuses," to harm the Islamic Republic.
One target for protesters' chants has been Iran's years-long and expensive projection of power abroad, especially in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, where Iran has spent billions of dollars propping up Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, creating Shiite militias in Iraq to fight Daesh, and ensuring the military prowess of its vital ally, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
While that effort has given Iran more influence and leverage across the Middle East than at any other time since the 1979 Islamic revolution - and turned the commander of the Revolutionary Guard's Qods Force, Maj Gen Qasim Soleimani, into a national hero in Iran - the cost has raised some eyebrows.
"Leave Syria, find a solution for us!" is one chant heard on the streets, where social media and even state television have shown buildings and cars on fire and military bases under attack. Another chant has been: "No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, we sacrifice our lives for Iran!"
From the outside, it may appear easy to connect the dots between the costs of Iran's intervention abroad and the scale of domestic economic woe. But analysts inside the country say Iran's current unprecedented status in the Middle East is not likely to have been made at the expense of economic prosperity at home, where mismanagement and corruption are more critical factors.
The fact is around 30 million Iranians are under the relative poverty line.
Iran's gross domestic product has grown roughly 20 per cent in the past five years, and inflation during Rouhani's four and a half years in office has dropped from 40 per cent to 10 per cent. But food prices remain high, and few Iranians feel the benefit of the landmark nuclear deal, which Rouhani promised would bring prosperity as US and other sanctions were lifted.
Officials have stated that 12 million Iranians out of a population of some 81 million are living under the "absolute" poverty line. For a country that received hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the past decade.
Still, he estimates that only 20,000 or 30,000 people nationwide are taking part in the current protests, many of them lower and working class - not Iran's large middle class that formed the backbone of the far larger 2009 Green Movement protests. Iran's substantial reformist faction and leaders have so far steered clear of the current unrest.
Iran's interventions abroad - ostensibly to fight Daesh and "terrorists" beyond Iran's borders, commanders say, and in their view as a means of exporting Iran's revolution through proxy Shiite forces - have long been a subject of complaint when times get tough.
More recently, other economic issues have made headlines in Iran. Rouhani last month, for example, criticised and detailed for the first time how large volumes of cash are given to religious and cultural institutions, and the out-sized role they play in Iran's economy. His budget proposed welfare cuts and a rise in fuel prices.
On top of that, millions of investors have also been stung by the collapse of unauthorised lending companies that grew during the freewheeling era of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nor is there a single overriding grievance, with a host of economic concerns - including the cost of foreign intervention - all bundled together.
-The Christian Science Monitor