We are seeing momentous events in Iran. For almost a decade, while much of the rest of the region has been upended with unrest, Iran has kept a lid on protest and dissent. But that lid is becoming unstuck.
The Green Movement protests in 2009 were largely in Tehran and vented anger about a perceived stolen election that brought Ahmadinejad to power. They were protesting about the rules of the system being broken.
These protests seem to be more about changing the system itself.
They are also in cities nationwide and some of them at least are calling for the downfall of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. That is new and cause for concern for the regime he heads.
But authorities will be worried that these protests have erupted despite all that they have done to stop them.
Since the Arab Spring began in 2011, they have watched revolution and chaos across the region and been determined to prevent the same happening at home. And yet despite all their efforts dissent has been simmering below the surface. It has now erupted.
Iranians have plenty to demonstrate about in a time of rising prices and unemployment. Sanctions imposed on the country have taken their toll, as has economic mismanagement. Greater transparency recently has revealed corruption at the top and an elite doing well while others are struggling.
Arguably, the commodity in shortest supply is hope. The nuclear deal Iran signed with outside powers saw some sanctions lifted, but for several reasons people are not feeling the benefits.
And those potential benefits were arguably oversold to the Iranian people by Hassan Rouhani in his bid to become president. When hopes are dashed, economic frustration becomes desperation, and that is no doubt one motivating force for the current protests.
There are many outside forces with an interest in encouraging unrest in Iran and undermining its regime. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US are all being blamed by its government.
Though it is not presenting any evidence to back up those claims. Foreign agitators may well be fanning the flames but there seems little doubt the fire was already alight in tinder-dry conditions.
What happens next is down to the government. All the signs are of an imminent crackdown. The protesters’ resolve will then be tested. In the past the Iranian government has done whatever it takes to crush protest and there is little reason to believe this will be different.
But in just a few days a lot of damage has already been done. The mystique of Iran’s Supreme Leader is permanently damaged with pictures of his image being torn down in cities across the country. And there is no doubt now about the levels of anger and frustration in Iranian society.
Iran’s whole model of government is now in question. A cleric presiding over a court of rival factions. Moderates jostling for power and influence with hardliners. It works well for bamboozling outside powers in negotiations, keeping antagonists guessing as to really is in power.
But as an efficient means of running a modern country it is proving woefully inadequate. When hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard and military can run businesses, they have a vested interest in obstructing reform.
Rouhani has every reason to complain there are powerful forces within the government structure blocking economic progress. Without it the frustration that’s bred these protests will not go away.