Winter 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The anniversary celebrations occurred in the midst of a difficult era of socio-economic turmoil, the return of َU.S. sanctions, and deepening political infighting in the Islamic Republic. Tensions between the government and the people are especially high. The tectonic plates of social change have been shifting below the surface in Iran over the past two decades, with major discontent erupting in the past year.
While the country’s political facade appears largely unchanged, tensions and fragmentations among the ruling elite have deepened. Economic conditions are fast deteriorating for the average citizen, while political repression remains a harsh reality. Iran’s citizens, who have clung to hope and the possibility for change through decades of domestic repression and isolation from the global economy, struggle to remain hopeful. Collective fatigue stemming from years of isolation from the global economy, as well as domestic economic hardship, compounds the disappointment Iranians feel from unfulfilled political promises. The Iranian government has repeatedly failed to carry out promised reforms; in recent years alone, President Hassan Rouhani has proven unable to carry out his promises to “open up Iran politically, ease rigid social restrictions and address human rights abuses.” As this situation continues, Iran risks despair and chaos.
Broken promises, at home and abroad
Despite President Hassan Rouhani’s attempts to appear responsive to the needs of the people, his constituency is losing hope in any kind of improvement. Both the middle class and those already living below the poverty line are growing poorer by the day, fueling wide-scale political disenchantment. Meanwhile, President Rouhani acts like an opposition leader from within the government, struggling to act as an accountable decision-maker for the country.
Iranian constituencies who voted for President Rouhani in 2013 and 2017, many of whom belong to the country’s middle class, had hoped to see improvements following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal. At the very least, they expected the JCPOA would allow for some breathing space in the context of broad satisfaction with the standard of living and the politically restrictive environment within the country. Many hoped the deal would facilitate the removal of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic and open the doors for more engagement with the West, especially the U.S. This hope began turning to despair, in large part due to persistent domestic economic mismanagement, as well as the return of sanctions by the current U.S. administration.
In the last ten years, U.S. policy toward Iran has played a key role in propelling the Iranian rollercoaster of hope and despair. U.S. policy aims to limit Iran’s capabilities for developing nuclear weapons and curb its sponsorship of groups designated as terror organizations. Both the Obama and Trump administrations relied heavily on sanctions to pursue those goals. These sanctions wrought alarming effects, destabilizing Iran’s already-struggling middle class by placing a heavy financial burden on them and isolating the country from the global economy. The consequences of these sanctions impacted the Iranian middle class’s ability to communicate and engage effectively with the rest of the world. Iranians rely heavily on the digital space to express their grievances and to engage with one another beyond the reach of offline censorship. The government has worked to limit the accessibility of digital spaces, but Iranians were also negatively impacted by the technological limitations brought on by sanctions. For example, the American cloud-based team collaboration tool Slack banned users with links to Iran – even those who have left the country.
By further undermining Iran’s civil society through a damaging, sanctions-forward policy, the U.S. risks weakening the aspirations of Iranians for a peaceful future where equality and human rights are respected. In a situation where the price of bread and meat has become the dominant discourse in the country, advocates for democratic values such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and rule of law may appear excessively idealistic.
Green Movement: a peaceful quest for accountability
In 2009, the Iranian people went to the streets to protest the result of the presidential election. They claimed that the election was fraudulently decided in favor of a highly divisive figure, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As the world watched mass protests unfold, then-U.S. President Barack Obama remained cautiously quiet. When he finally spoke out, he refrained from making any judgement call regarding the election outcome while expressing his inspiration at the people’s participation.
Despite the mass protests, the Supreme Leader endorsed Ahmadinejad’s re-election, ensuring his stay in office for another four years. Siding with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader allowed for brutality against the protestors in order to maintain power and eliminate any chance for the protest to expand. Many Iranians refer to Ahmadinejad’s presidency as Iran’s “dark days,” when fear spread as social, civic and political freedoms were further curtailed. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council tightened multilateral sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear program in June 2010. These sanctions, orchestrated by President Obama’s administration, resulted in intensified economic hardships for Iranians and fueled mounting discontent and fear of instability.
Nuclear negotiations: temporary hope
The 2013 election of a more centrist figure, Hassan Rouhani, restored some hope for those who had taken to the streets in 2009. While stressing Iran’s nuclear rights, then-candidate Rouhani stressed the need to find a way out of Iran’s impasse with the West, and to bring the country out of isolation. Once elected, Rouhani indeed prioritized the issue of nuclear negotiations with the West and the US in particular, calling it a matter of “heart.” Unsurprisingly, his push to negotiate with the West drew criticism from Iranian conservatives. Yet, the Supreme Leader tacitly supported the negotiations while emphasizing that compromising over Iran’s nuclear program could be considered as surrendering to Western powers. Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S. Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East leveled criticism at President Obama for his role in spearheading the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Ultimately, a deal was sealed in July 2015 as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shook hands in Vienna.
The successful outcome of the nuclear deal spurred a moment of hope in Iran. As sanctions against Iran were gradually lifted, Iranians looked forward to feeling the effects of a less isolated Iran in their daily lives. Simultaneously, some worried that the West might minimize its efforts to call out Iran on its continuous human rights violations as a way to keep Tehran complacent and focused on re-entering the global market. All in all, despite doubts over the West’s commitment to human rights in Iran, the Iran deal ushered in much hope for improved socio-economic prospects for Iranians. Many also believed that a less isolated and more economically prosperous Iran would foster human rights and long-term political reform.
Today’s picture: a grim outlook
While the middle class continued to hope in the wake of the nuclear deal, patience was running low for the labor class in smaller cities. They were increasingly buckling under the pressure of meeting basic needs. In December 2017, the working class took the lead in protests organized in more than 100 cities across the country. The urban middle class, some fearing that Iran would fall into chaos and become another Syria, refrained from joining these nationwide protests.
A new movement was born, one in which the working class openly criticized the Iranian government itself, questioning the regime’s social and political legitimacy. Unlike in 2009, Washington did not remain silent in the face of these protests. The Trump administration, which had already disparaged Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, saw the unrest as an opportunity. President Trump’s administration proceeded to increase economic pressure. In 2018, the US left the Iran deal and sanctions were restored with the aim of destabilizing the economy and maximizing the pressure campaign against the Iranian government to limit its regional influence.
Renewed economic pressure may indeed fuel the protests, but sustained unrest against the backdrop of rapidly deteriorating economic conditions will not guarantee a democratic future for Iran. Intensified sanctions, even if they achieve the goal of extending the protests, are unlikely to change the behavior of the Iranian government in pursuit of minimizing human rights violations domestically and regionally. Likewise, renewed sanctions may allow the government to sidestep accountability by blaming its long history of economic mismanagement and lack of transparency on sanctions. Either outcome fails to advance Iran’s prospects for a democratic future.
Many Iranians already consider the government in Tehran responsible for much of the hardship and repression they face on a daily basis. Allowing Tehran to shift blame for its own mistakes onto Washington does more to aid the regime than it does to support its critics among the Iranian working and middle classes. It also further alienates those Iranians who are weary of US claims to support Iranian citizens in their struggle for democratic values and human rights.
Similar to previous administrations, the Trump administration is missing the nuances about Iran. One difference stands out: this time, Iran is closer to the edge than ever in the past forty years. The Iranian nation has endured years of struggle with the hopes of bringing about fundamental reforms and a future without bloodshed and instability. Iranians learn daily of economic mismanagement and corruption among the ruling elite. The working class is simply not able to endure the current economic situation. The middle class, while thus far unwilling to take to the streets due to the fear of chaos and instability, is also facing dire economic conditions.
Iranians share the struggle for socio-economic, civil, and political rights nationwide. However, the reluctance of the middle class to join marginalized groups in their demands for government accountability is an alarming sign that demonstrates a lack of unity among those who fear instability and those frustrated citizens who are most burdened by the deteriorating circumstances. The current state of discord makes it easier for the Iranian government to subdue the energy of the latest protests. Without unity and dialogue, Iran’s citizenry will continue struggling to turn collective frustration into a viable future for Iran.