The past week of nationwide demonstrations in Iran, the largest in almost a decade, surprised many of the country’s political leaders and elites. The endurance and repercussions of the protests are uncertain, but they have already shined an unwelcome spotlight on widespread domestic frustrations at a delicate time for President Rouhani’s foreign policy legacy.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly placed the Iran nuclear agreement under question, and is now fast approaching a mid-January deadline to decide whether to continue waiving sanctions in accordance with the deal’s commitments. The US administration has yet to finalize a decision and there are suggestions that the Iranian protests may encourage Trump to reinstate sanctions and kill the deal. For Tehran, the stakes are high: the continuing absence of sanctions is imperative for Iran’s reintegration into the global economy.
Of course, the Islamic Republic is no stranger to protest movements. In 2009, the so-called “Green Movement” attracted vast numbers under a clear leadership structure largely supported by the educated middle class. By contrast, the latest wave of protests have no visible leader but quickly spread to over 40 cities.
Many of these regions have traditionally not been at the forefront of political discourse in the country and are viewed as having been more loyal to the Islamic Republic’s conservative leaders. Protestors’ demands have quickly mushroomed from simple economic appeals to radical slogans against the entire ruling establishment. By Tuesday, the streets increasingly turned violent, with officials reporting over 20 fatalities and hundreds arrested.
Political and economic stagnation inside Iran have long provided a basis for discontent. Iran’s 80 million population is largely youthful and confronting an estimated 30 percent unemployment rate. The youth and working-class demographics have been hard hit by price increases and subsidy cuts. Iranians routinely grapple with systemic corruption, mismanagement and a growing wealth disparity. Many had high expectations that the lifting of sanctions two years ago would boost their living standards. But while oil exports and GDP have increased, Iranians now bitterly acknowledge that the trickle-down effect will take much longer.
In his first reactions to the protests, Rouhani acknowledged that the economy needed “major corrective surgery” but indicated that there were disagreements on the remedy. This follows from a year in which the Rouhani government has quietly and gradually attempted to reduce the economic reach of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and to shine a light on corruption. Rouhani also noted that Iranians had a constitutional right to criticize the government and to protest peacefully.
In brief remarks, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei suggested that foreign powers were to blame for recent protests. Regardless of how the protests evolved, it is becoming widely believed inside Iran that Rouhani’s opposition promoted the original protests to weaken the president and undermine his economic proposals.
World leaders are carefully following how Iranian authorities manage their response to these protests. So far, the messaging from the United States and Europe on these events has been strikingly different.
The United States was one of the first countries to issue a statement condemning Iran’s leaders for turning the country into “an economically depleted rogue state”. The statement also repeated testimony by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from June in support of “those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government” – a statement that at the time was widely interpreted by Iranian officials as support for regime change.
President Trump has characteristically taken to Twitter to release a series of comments on the Iranian protests, including one expressing “such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”
The messaging by US officials plays dangerously into the hands of those authorities inside Iran that brand all protestors as backed by foreign enemies. Trump’s tweets are a gift for hardline elements of the Iranian system: they provide more legitimacy for heavier securitization in the country that deter and minimizes the space for future civil movements inside the country.
European leaders have refrained from such harmful rhetoric and focused on the need for Iran to allow peaceful protest and to de-escalate violence. A declaration on behalf of the European Union highlights the “unacceptable loss of human lives” and the expectation that “all concerned refrain from violence and the right of expression… be guaranteed.”
Instead of following the Trump approach of labeling Iran’s entire leadership as “rogue” and “corrupt”, European governments seem to be using diplomatic channels with Iran to get clarity over recent events and to highlight their expectations. French President Emmanuel Macron has been in direct contact with Rouhani to stress that authorities show restraint in responding to protestors. Macron has also publicly noted that maintaining a dialogue with Iran is important and warned against the aggressive rhetoric from Washington and Riyadh that risks leading to war.
In their response to evolving developments in Iran, European actors should continue to focus on measures that can assist, rather than harm, the process of democratic reforms advocated by Iranians inside the country. They should continue to urge the Iranian government to implement the right to peaceful assembly provided in the country’s constitution and call for Rouhani to follow up on his proposal to enlarge avenues for peaceful protests.
Second, European leaders should use existing diplomatic channels to directly engage Rouhani. While acknowledging the complexities of Iran’s political and security situation against a background of growing regional hostility, they should highlight that a harsh response to protestors will likely damage Iran’s economic and political relations with Europe.
Finally, European governments should reiterate their firm support for the nuclear deal if they want to avert a new crisis. In the coming days, as Trump deliberates on whether to renew sanctions waivers, the President may well consider using the Iranian protests as pretext to implement his preferred option to exit the nuclear agreement. But so long as Iran adheres to its nuclear commitments, European countries should maintain their commitment to the deal.
European leaders should also highlight to the US government and Congress that the diplomatic resolution of the nuclear file has contributed in moving the debate inside Iran away from blaming international actors and sanctions as the driving source of economic stagnation. There is now greater space for Iranian internal discourse to highlight mismanagement, corruption, and social injustice, and for Iranians to demand accountability and action from their leadership. Fallout over the nuclear deal would shift Iranian public debate and government priorities back onto foreign rather than domestic policy. This would drastically setback much needed reforms that will ultimately have to come from inside Iran.
A version of this piece was originally published in French by Le Monde on 5 January.