Many have taken to viewing all of Iran’s problems through the prism of US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. Such a view suggests that the Iranian population was seemingly happy with the direction the Iranian government was taking before the US exit in May this year. But at the end of 2017, in less than two weeks of protest, 25 people were killed and over 450 arrested. Iran was boiling with dissent even when the US was a signatory to the deal. Put simply, the Iranian regime has been under an unprecedented level of domestic discontent dating back to before Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal.
On Monday 5 November, the Trump administration reinstated all the sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the deal. This puts further intense pressure on Tehran, which has already witnessed an unparalleled rise in anti-regime sentiment this year. Some have even gone so far as to draw comparisons between the appetite for change today and the years leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
“Our enemy is right here, they [the Iranian regime] lie telling us it’s America” is the slogan that has, for many ordinary Iranians, replaced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s infamous “Death to America” call. Sunday 4 November marked the anniversary of the 1979 siege on the US Embassy in Tehran, which resulted in 52 American citizens being held hostage for 444 days—a defining moment in US-Iran relations. Thirty-nine years on from the hostage crisis, the mood on the streets of Iran could not be more different.
As the situation in Iran worsens, the regime has shown no inclination that it will prioritise the needs of its people over advancing its ideological regional interests.”
The nature and scope of today’s dissent will make Tehran far more nervous than the 2009 Green Movement uprising did. Back then, the world watched as Iranians took to the streets; today observers need to be just as mindful of the groundswell of opposition. However, unlike in 2009, discontent is no longer driven by middle-class Iranians. Today’s anger is particularly high among working-class people, who make up the regime’s core support base. Soaring prices and relentless economic turmoil have meant many poorer Iranians are having to live on the breadline. It is this frustration that is piling on the pressure domestically.
The incompetence of Tehran has only added to the sense of grievance. While President Hassan Rouhani dismissed rising prices as foreign propaganda, Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader’s senior adviser, called on Iranians to learn from the Houthis in Yemen, who, despite not having much to eat, remain committed to resistance. When people are struggling to make ends meet, telling them to learn lessons from an Islamist group active in a war zone where Iran is controversially engaged is hardly going to inspire confidence.
This sentiment is what is frustrating the Iranians on the streets the most.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal, the Iranian regime has spent billions of dollars to support its regional proxies. There is no doubt that external pressure has contributed to bringing Iran’s economy to near breaking point, but the Iranian public is increasingly blaming its own leaders’ ideologically driven policies for its hardship. Slogans such as “Leave Syria alone, think about us” and “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran” can be heard throughout Iran.
In Syria alone, the Iranian regime has spent a minimum of $30 billion since the start of the conflict, and now spends at least $6 billion every year. Many people feel that money spent overseas could have been invested domestically to resuscitate the country’s ailing economy or resolve major infrastructure deficiencies, such as widespread water shortages that have been in the making for decades.
As the situation in Iran worsens, the regime has shown no inclination that it will prioritise the needs of its people over advancing its ideological regional interests. Just a couple of months ago, Rouhani declared an official commitment to rebuild war-torn Syria while citizens of his own country still lack adequate housing one year after an earthquake hit the western Iranian city of Kermanshah.
Despite the European Union’s inclination to take a different course from Trump on Iran, the US market is simply too important for European companies to ignore. This pressure, coupled with mounting domestic dissent, will likely lead to deeper and wider unrest in the coming weeks and months.
The Iranian regime faces two choices: either shift focus away from its regional ambitions towards securing a better future for the Iranian people, or continue to ignore ordinary Iranians in pursuit of increasing its regional influence.”
The world’s leaders need to listen to the sufferings of the Iranian people. Those opposed to Iran’s regional ambition should seek to amplify these voices on an international scale to pressure the regime to respond to citizens’ demands.
Of course, the international community must work with the Iranian leadership to address regional and international concerns. But while the nuclear deal was signed in good faith, the agreement has deterred European governments from condemning the Iranian regime’s regional and domestic posturing, for fear that such a move could result in Iran walking away from the deal. Europe should ensure that it is not held hostage over the agreement, nor should it abandon the people of Iran.
The Iranian regime faces two choices: either shift focus away from its regional ambitions towards securing a better future for the Iranian people, or continue to ignore ordinary Iranians in pursuit of increasing its regional influence. Unless Tehran can find a way to release the pressure valve and address its population’s legitimate concerns, this winter could prove to be the tipping point for the Islamic Republic.