World leaders trying to exploit the narrative around the protests ignore the real economic problems being faced by ordinary people
The street protests across Iran, which were reportedly petering out on Thursday, have been interpreted over the past week in conflicting and dramatic ways to suit the policy agendas, prejudices and stereotypes of competing forces inside and outside the country.
But as a growing number of senior Iranian officials, including the president, Hassan Rouhani, now admit, the principal driving force behind the unrest is no mystery: it’s the economy, stupid, as James Carville used to say. The problem is less about the rule of the mullahs, more about the price of mutton.
Defaulting to its preferred narrative, and undeterred by a lack of evidence, the US quickly claimed the unrest was indicative of a deep, national yearning for regime change.
Donald Trump’s gloating offer of support for the “people of Iran as they fight to take back their country” clearly implied direct American intervention – the very last thing most Iranians, however discontented, would want.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister who, like Tehran’s Saudi rivals, depicts Iran’s leadership as an existential threat, hailed the bravery of protesters seeking freedom from a “cruel regime” intent on “spreading hate”. Netanyahu got so excited, he put out videos in English and Farsi predicting an era of renewed amity, recalling the days of the Shah. “When this regime finally falls, and one day it will, Iranians and Israelis will be great friends once again,” he proclaimed.
With similar, dull predictability, Russia has used the Iran crisis to promote its vision of a world free from American meddling. The US should consider its crushing response to the Occupy Wall Street and Ferguson riots before criticising other countries, a spokeswoman said waspishly.
Inside Iran, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an ageing, infirm arch-conservative with little understanding of the modern world, fell back on his own preferred cliches, blaming “foreign enemies” for the unrest. Revolutionary Guard generals and conservative media similarly denounced the machinations of hostile intelligence services and claimed the protesters had been paid and directed from abroad.
Again, no evidence was produced. But Amnesty International is warning that up to 1,000 detained protesters could face torture and the death penalty if hardliners get their way.
If these claims of foreign plots failed to convince, it may be because the mullahs’ time-honoured, post-1979 tactic of blaming the Great Satan and Zionist co-conspirators for everything that goes wrong is wearing thin.
In the age of the internet and irrepressible social media, and in a country where more than half the population of 80 million is under the age of 35 (and up to 40% of 15 to 24-year-olds are unemployed), Khamenei’s uninformed rants carry diminishing weight.
But his claims are also crucially undermined by Iranians’ own personal experience. They know Iran is a seriously mismanaged economy, with key sectors under state or quasi-state control. It suffers from epic under-investment, partly but not only due to international sanctions. Its vital oil and gas industries are notoriously inefficient. And corruption is rife.
Recent budget increases in fuel and food prices appear to have triggered spontaneous protests by ordinary people in multiple centres. The vast majority were not seeking regime change. But they were incensed by what they saw as another attack on their living standards.
Rouhani’s unfulfilled promise that things would improve after the 2015 nuclear deal, and the west’s failure to free up banking and investment controls, have made matters worse. But the basic problem is an under-performing economy, for which the government is ultimately responsible.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a veteran adviser to Khamenei, acknowledged this reality. “The people’s main demand now is for the government and officials to deal with the economic problems,” he said.
Moves are underway in the Majlis (parliament), backed by moderates and conservatives, to block the budget measures announced last month, which included welfare cuts as well as fuel price rises.
“Concerning petrol prices, we must absolutely take into account the situation of the people because the tensions are absolutely not in the interests of the country,” Ali Larijani, the Majlis speaker, said.
While condemning outbreaks of violence, officials quoted by the pro-government Tehran Times also said the protests showed Iranians could express themselves freely and lawfully, unlike in some Arab states.
Such attempts to depict Iran as a normal country with normal problems may not be entirely convincing. It still has a long way to go. But after the revolution that never was, the gross stereotypes and “cry freedom” platitudes offered by Trump and his allies, and the silly scapegoating of foreign plotters by Khamenei and his followers, look as foolish as they are ignorant.