As Unrest Grips Iran for a Fifth Day, the Regime Is Once Again Locked in a Crisis of Legitimacy

Unorganised and leaderless, the violent protests in Iran are a reaction to rampant corruption, unemployment and an economy in decline.

The protests in Iran are the boldest challenge to the regime and the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei since the unrest in 2009. Credit: Reuters

The protests in Iran are the boldest challenge to the regime and the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei since the unrest in 2009. Credit: Reuters

For the past week, Iran has been witnessing a public display of dissent and discontent, the largest since the 2009 Green Movement which had challenged the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The protests, which started last week in the holy city of Mashhad, are a reaction to the declining economy, rising inflation and unemployment, rampant corruption and rising fuel and food prices. Following President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election last year, the economic development which was expected by the people as a result of the nuclear deal – which had the overwhelming support of the Iranian public – never came about.

As a result, the terrible economic situation has exacerbated all of those Iranian-origin political problems represented by a lack of liberties and socio-political authoritarianism. Moreover, the Iranian political nomenklatura has not been able to address legitimate grievances that have been expressed by Iranians over the past several decades and especially since the economic sanctions which followed the nuclear deal of 2015 between Iran and the Barack Obama administration.

In addition, the government is viewed by a high percentage of the Iranian population as highly corrupt and increasing inflation is seen by the population as a real form of injustice practiced by a religious government that promised social justice to the Iranian people after the revolution of 1979.

This said, though the new riots in Iran are general and intense, thus far they are nowhere as big as what occurred during the Green Movement, in which millions took part. What is going on presently is not a revolutionary process, especially because it is unorganised and leaderless.

Also, in contrast to 2009, these protests seem to be a direct challenge to the rule of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. Consequently, the new turmoil began with a protest in the country’s second-largest city, Mashhad, apparently led by hardliners who wanted to voice their opposition to the reformist policies of President Rouhani.

As it happens very often in Iran, people took advantage of the rare opportunity to express their discontent regardless of the original organisers’ political goals. As a result, anti-Rouhani protests in Mashhad turned into a broader anti-regime one all over Iran, decrying economic grievances and Iran’s foreign-policy expenditures in places like Syria and Yemen.

These spontaneous protests have varied in size and place with some resulting in violent clashes with anti-riot forces. According to some domestic observers, until now, 15 people have been killed by the authorities in the clashes and hundreds have reportedly been arrested.

Children of revolution

However, the present crisis in Iran is not only rooted in the popular quest for the democratisation of the state and society and the conservative reaction and opposition to it. There is another factor distinguishing the current political crisis from the previous instances of political factionalism and internal power struggles in Iran and it must be taken into consideration.

Most of the demonstrators who have been questioning the entire legitimacy of Iran’s supreme leader and the Islamic regime in the past week are, unlike their parents, children of the Iranian revolution.

They belong to a new generation who did not experience the revolution of 1979 and want another Iran. Most were not around or are too young to remember the revolution. These youngsters are a reminder of the fact that a monolithic image of Iran does not reflect the mindset of the 70% of the population, who are under the age of 35. The young Iranians’ quest for democracy has presented serious challenges not only to the status of the doctrine of the “Velayat-e Faqih” and questions of its legitimacy, but also to the Rouhani government and its electoral legitimacy.

Having said this, one needs to also add that Islamic Iran is more divided than at any time since 1979, a divide between the Rouhani government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that have the monopoly of violence in the country. This is why the military intervention of the IRGC is more than expected in the near future.

But one way or another, it is highly doubtful that the current Iranian unrest will somehow blossom into a flame that burns away Iran’s theocratic regime. However, once again, as in 2009, the Iranian regime finds itself thrown into an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy.

This is a turning point in Iran’s recent political history that the world cannot ignore. It looks the genie of democratisation in Iran is trying once again to get out of the bottle. But everyone knows well that letting the genie of democracy out of the bottle in Iran is like opening a Pandora’s box that the Iranian regime is clearly fearful it won’t be able to close.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.