When the West finally turned its attention to the protests erupting in Iran, immediately the connection was made with the impressive demonstrations of 2009, the famous “Green Wave”, which shook the nizam, as the Islamic Republic’s power system is called.
At the time, millions took to the streets to protest against the obvious manipulation of the election results that had led to the re-election of the ultra-radical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And back then just like today, the pasdaran – the extremely powerful revolutionary guards – suppressed the protests with brutal determination.
The similarities seem to end here. Actually, the mechanisms that have led to the explosion of a violent popular rage are profoundly different. Today, the mobilization does not involve the middle-high urban classes of Tehran and, in particular, university students, who have always been a thorn in the side of the regime. If they got involved, it happened later, when events were already unfolding.
For some time, students have been asking for more democracy, political freedom and freedom concerning individual customs; they have been complaining about the country’s closed attitude towards the outside; however, they keep paying little attention to the economically disadvantaged (Iran is – in spite of Islamic rhetoric – still very socially classist and stratified).
Those who are filling up the streets and shaking the system come mostly from the lower social classes. These people have always been exploited by the regime, and by the politicized clergy in particular, as a “mass of maneuver”, thanks to the pervasiveness of the Iranian state patronage system, which has distributed huge amounts of money just to keep the poorest sections of society tied to itself. Indeed, the mostazafin, or the dispossessed, have been the architrave of Khomeinism’s radical ideology.
Yet, the protest started precisely from them, motivated not so much by the dissatisfaction of a stereotypical “civil society” that feeds on freedom and democracy, but rather by the catastrophic economic conditions of the lower social classes, which have been further impoverished by the regime’s decisions. The years in which generous subsidies were given out are indeed gone.
The Iranian economy is corrupt, patronized, inefficient, dominated by religious foundations and companies owned by member of the pasdaran, who operate in privileged conditions, distorting the market, and blocking free competition. In addition, there are the enormous costs of the international sanctions of the past few years, which forced Iran to a difficult compromise on the nuclear issue, and the even greater expenses to support the military effort in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State and against the Sunnis.
The years of granting subsidies are over
Teheran might have won, at the moment, the geostrategic match against its arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, whose geopolitical moves in the region have showed to be catastrophic, but the economic and diplomatic prices are proving to be almost unbearable.
The state budget is plagued by the decline in oil prices and the costs of military adventures in the Middle East. The government of the moderate president Hassan Rouhani has been trying for some time to reduce economic distortions, but with scarce results. After all, Rouhani has too limited space for action: he cannot undermine the privileges of religious foundations; he cannot challenge the super power of the pasdaran, ever stronger within a divided and quarrelsome nizam; he has no real power in strategic and military choices.
The decision of his government to cut subsidies and raise the prices of basic necessities was in fact a forced one. It is likely, as they say, that the beginning of the protests was somehow manipulated by ultra-conservative groups, precisely to put the moderates’ government in a difficult position.
The peripheries and the sectarian question
However, the level of popular rage and dissatisfaction with the whole regime is such that the demonstrations escalated out of control. Moreover, it was noticed an alarming sectarian tension in the most peripheral regions.
In Iran, alongside the Persian and Shiite majority, many minority ethnic and religious groups coexist, including Arab-Sunni communities, the Baluch and the Kurds. For a while, Saudis, Americans and Israelis have been fomenting their dissatisfaction, emerged in January, being also the fruit of the great polarization between Sunnis and Shiites. So far, such radicalization has enabled Tehran to strengthen itself in the region, but the risk is that of weakening the Islamic Republic within its borders.
The combination of these motivations also explains the violence of the demonstrations and the brutal repression carried out by the pasdaran. But it also signals the difference of these protests from those of 2009. And it signals also the silence of reformist voices, which, although controlled and limited, have always found the way to make their support heard, especially when more freedom is what is being asked, and not more bread.
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