Iran protests re­veal depth of regime split

● There is no threat — yet — of rev­o­lu­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL DAVENTRY FOR­EIGN EDITOR

WHAT IS re­mark­able about the un­rest in Iran is that, one week on, the protests re­main with­out a leader. That is in con­trast to 2009, the last time there were ma­jor protests on this scale, when Ira­ni­ans were driven onto the streets by al­le­ga­tions of vote rig­ging in the elec­tion that saw Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad win a se­cond term.

Then, the pro­test­ers — many of them welle­d­u­cated, mid­dle-class ur­ban­ites — were ush­ered on by the de­feated can­di­date, Mir-Hos­sein Mousavi. His move­ment even­tu­ally led Iran’s Supreme Leader to or­der a par­tial re­count of votes. Mr Ah­madine­jad was con­firmed the vic­tor.

This time, it was not a du­bi­ous elec­tion that sparked protests but anger over un­paid wages and the price of food — eggs, in par­tic­u­lar.

They be­gan on De­cem­ber 28 in Mash­dad, Iran’s se­cond city, and spread across the coun­try as the New Year drew closer. Con­ser­va­tive ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties were among the most vo­cal in their anger.

“Big protests in Iran,” US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted on Sun­day. “The peo­ple are fi­nally get­ting wise

as to how their money and wealth is be­ing stolen and squan­dered on ter­ror­ism. Looks like they will not take it any longer.”

But the regime is not in im­mi­nent dan­ger.

At this stage there is no prospect of the 1979 rev­o­lu­tion, which trans­formed the coun­try into an Is­lamic repub­lic, be­ing re­versed — not least be­cause of the ab­sence of a fig­ure­head to rally around.

But the protests will still have sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for Pres­i­dent Rouhani’s lead­er­ship and for Iran’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive role in the re­gion.

Iran is of­ten por­trayed as a soli­tary be­he­moth that de­fi­antly con­fronts the rest of the world, but its do­mes­tic politics are dom­i­nated by ri­val blocs that com­pete for power and in­flu­ence.

Mr Rouhani has spent re­cent years strik­ing a bal­ance between these fac­tions — in­clud­ing the hawk­ish sec­tions of the lead­er­ship that are steer­ing the coun­try’s ag­gres­sive for­eign pol­icy across the Mid­dle East.

Iran is fight­ing proxy wars on sev­eral fronts with Saudi Ara­bia, its main re­gional ri­val. In some coun­tries, the war has been hot: Ira­nian sup­port has been cru­cial to keep­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime alive and sus­tain­ing the Houthi ef­fort in Ye­men’s wretched civil war.

In oth­ers, it has been a Cold War of guile and machi­na­tions. A Saudi-led group of coun­tries abruptly cut off diplo­matic re­la­tions and closed the only land bor­der with Qatar over its own close ties to Tehran.

Mean­while in Le­banon, Prime

Min­is­ter Saad al-Hariri spec­tac­u­larly — and, it tran­spired, abortively — re­signed, cit­ing the dis­rup­tive ef­fects of Ira­nian-backed Hezbol­lah mil­i­tants in his coun­try.

These for­eign ad­ven­tures have caused fury abroad; they are also at odds with the do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion.

Mr Rouhani won re-elec­tion in May 2017 in large part be­cause of the in­ter­na­tional nu­clear deal that Mr Trump de­cries.

The Ira­nian pres­i­dent had ar­gued that the West’s de­ci­sion to lift cer­tain eco­nomic sanc­tions would mean in­creased pros­per­ity for ev­ery­one in the coun­try and in many ways he was right. In­fla­tion has been curbed and the economy is grow­ing.

But the protests made it plain that the ben­e­fits have not trick­led down to or­di­nary Ira­ni­ans. Cor­rup­tion is rife and most peo­ple turn to the black mar­ket for their ev­ery­day needs.

These are prob­lems that are not go­ing to be solved overnight.

This decade has al­ready shown that when poverty and hunger drive peo­ple to des­per­ate acts, they can have enor­mous con­se­quences; re­mem­ber Tu­nisian street ven­dor Mo­hamed Bouaz­izi, who set him­self on fire in De­cem­ber 2010 af­ter po­lice con­fis­cated his cart and weigh­ing scales. His death trig­gered protests that led to the down­fall of the Tu­nisian regime — and sev­eral oth­ers across the Mid­dle East.

The demon­stra­tions’ hum­ble ori­gins are cause for Mr Rouhani to be alarmed.

This helps ex­plain Mr Rouhani’s ini­tial, tem­pered re­sponse to the protests when he said peo­ple are “com­pletely free” to crit­i­cise the gov­ern­ment “in a way that would lead to the im­prove­ment of the coun­try’s con­di­tions.”

It also helps ex­plain why “for­eign agents” were blamed for stok­ing the vi­o­lence, as well as the many re­ports that Mr Rouhani’s con­ser­va­tive op­po­nents back the demon­stra­tions.

For all Mr Rouhani’s ac­cu­sa­tions of out­side in­ter­fer­ence, this is a very do­mes­tic up­ris­ing.

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