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Iran shut down the Internet to stop protests. But for how long?

The government won’t find it easy to address protesters’ grievances.

- November 26, 2019

After a sudden increase in the price of gasoline, protests turned violent in Iran this month. Protesters chanted against the government — and set fire to banks, police stations and cars.

The government’s response was brutal and decisive. After the protests began, the government shut down the Internet across the entire country and used violence against protesters. Confirmed reports indicate that security forces killed more than 100 people and wounded hundreds. They arrested more than 7,000 protesters.

This is the second time in two years that the country witnessed a widespread wave of anti-regime protests. Such protests keep occurring although the regime does not allow protests criticizing state policies and leadership. This round of protests differs in a fundamental way from the uprisings of 2009 against a fraudulent presidential election. Those protests publicly defied the Iranian government’s decision, but the demands of that wave of protests mostly stayed within the framework of the regime and the Islamic republic’s constitution with demands for recounting the votes or annulling the election results. Now, protesters are demanding structural changes beyond the existing framework of the Islamic republic.

Past protests in Iran

This wave of protests shows how much grievances have intensified since two years ago. In a similar set of protests from December 2017 to January 2018, about 88 Iranian counties had at least one day of protests over a period of 10 days — and, despite the closing down of an encrypted messaging platform called Telegram, protesters used the Internet to organize. In this wave, protests broke out in about the same number of Iranian counties in just a few days — all while the Internet was shut down.

The ferocious state response should not be surprising. During the 2017-2018 protests, the government deployed violence to stop protesters, too — although far fewer, about 20, were reported killed.

The Iranian leadership was more divided in 2017 than it is today. Informal reports at the time indicated that even some hard-liners supported the first day of the 2017 protests, which they hoped would undermine moderate President Hassan Rouhani. As the protests began, media affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tried to depict the demonstrations as resulting from the Rouhani administration’s failures in managing the economy. Rouhani said the protests had economic and political motives. In other words, both factions tried to spin the protests against each other. The violence and repression came only when protests escalated beyond their control.

In this wave, however, Iran’s political leadership has seemed united in cracking down on protesters. Both Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and Rouhani derided the protests and said they would not let the protesters undermine public order and security. This greater leadership unity is in part due to President Trump’s decision to leave the nuclear deal — which drove Iran’s leadership to unite in opposition to the United States’ maximum-pressure strategy. Now, the leaders see any protest as an existential threat against the regime. As the leadership struggles to deal with new sanctions against Iran, the historical differences between moderates and hard-liners are less and less visible. They remain united, supporting the recent brutal crackdown on protesters.

Could new elections provide a way out?

In both of the past elections, Iranians elected Rouhani with the support of reformists — and against hard-liners. Rouhani promised to improve Iran’s economy and introduce political reforms. But his policies and decisions in his second term have disillusioned many of his supporters. Iran’s economy has suffered high inflation, the exchange value of the Iranian rial has dropped drastically, and the poverty rate has increased.

Rouhani might be able to blame the United States for his failure to fulfill his promises to resuscitate Iran’s economy. But the same cannot be said for breaking his promise to not use repression against dissidents and the opposition. In addition to the violence and Internet crackdown, Rouhani is reining in semi-electoral institutions such as parliament. His government raised gasoline prices over parliament’s opposition, relying instead on a council appointed by Khamenei that includes the president, the legislature and the head of the judiciary. This council has no legal basis in the constitution or existing laws of the Islamic Republic. After the first day of protests, parliamentary members proposed a bill to cancel the increase in gasoline price — but Khamenei rejected it, and the parliament backed down.

Looking ahead: More protests are likely

Earlier in his tenure, Rouhani presented the nuclear agreement as the best vehicle to rescue the economy by escaping sanctions. He has at times indicated a willingness to negotiate with the Trump administration to remove sanctions, but he has not been able to do so because Khamenei objects. Representative institutions such as parliament have not been allowed to make foreign policy decisions or decisions about restructuring the economy, manifested in the sudden increase in the gasoline price. Rouhani is trapped between U.S. sanctions, popular rage and the domination of unelected elites.

The government turned the Internet back on this week after the violent crackdown ended this wave of protest, but new waves of protests are likely to emerge as long as current grievances remain. Iranians seeking political change have in the past elected a reformist parliament and a moderate president. But today the parliament has no voice and the president has not delivered on his promises, leading many Iranians to feel that electoral institutions may not be the way to push for their demands.

Protesters face a main challenge: There is a lack of internal organization and leadership. Because of heavy repression, there has been no credible opposition political leadership inside the country, and potential leaders outside lack credibility. Over the past several years, Iranians of different groups — workers, teachers, retirees and other angry citizens — have all protested, frustrated by the repressive policies of the government. The major challenge for all Iranians disaffected with the current situation is to overcome their differences and create a new political platform that can bridge different opposition groups.

Mohammad Ali Kadivar is an assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College.