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Why Iran and Iraq are caught in a cycle of protests and crackdowns

Widespread protests against poor living conditions, corruption and inequality have authorities of both countries worried.

burnt bank, Tehran
People walk near a burnt bank last Wednesday, after protests against increased fuel prices, in Tehran, Iran.
Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Something’s brewing on the streets in both Iran and Iraq. Widespread protests against poor living conditions, corruption and inequality — in short, the system — have authorities of both countries worried enough that together they have killed more than 400 demonstrators in recent weeks. 

Officials in both countries will use repression to stay in control for the foreseeable future. But in doing so, they will fuel a cycle of popular frustration and violent reaction that will be extremely hard to escape. 

The eruption of anger in cities throughout Iran followed the announcement in mid-November of a 50 percent increase in fuel prices. The reaction was predictable, but the harshness of the government’s response was striking. Amnesty International said Iranian authorities “used excessive and lethal force to crush largely peaceful protests in more than 100 cities” across the country. At least 106 people were killed, and the figure could be much higher. In addition, the government shut down the internet nationwide for several days.

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This isn’t the first time the Iranian government has faced large-scale popular protest. In 2009, there was the so-called Green Movement to protest what many perceived to be a stolen presidential election. And a year and a half ago there were economic protests. This time, as usual, the government blames provocateurs (instigated by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States, of course), and the economic pain caused by economic sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration. According to one estimate, Iran exported 400,000 barrels of oil in September, compared to 1.95 million the previous September. The economy is expected to contract this year by more than 9 percent.

In 2009, when the protests brought out largely middle-class Iranians, many of whom are no fans of the country’s theocracy, the focus was Tehran. A year and a half ago, unrest spread to provincial cities and some of the system’s traditional working-class supporters. This time, the protests were instantaneous — and widespread. 

Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the roots of the fuel price increase come out of a debate within Iran’s leadership over whether it is better to reach out to the rest of the world, as moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani has urged, or to build a largely stand-alone “resistance” economy, which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants. Takeyh says Khamenei won that argument, and the price increase was necessary to help bring the state budget back under control. 

The problem, as always, is that not everyone suffers equally. If the economy is so bad, protesters want to know, why is the government spending so much time and money on proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen? Or how is it that those with connections end up doing very well in times of economic distress — or why enterprises associated with Khamenei or the Revolutionary Guards don’t pay any taxes? 

The Iranian government says the protests are over now, but Takeyh makes this striking assertion: “The latest demonstrations reveal an uncomfortable truth for the regime: that the Islamic Republic is increasingly a government without supporters.” And this: “As with the last days of the shah in the late 1970s, the Islamist ruling elite today seem oblivious to all that is crumbling around them.”

That might be overstating it. But with the aging Khamenei still in control and Iran defining its role in the world by its opposition to the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to see how the country can change course. That means blaming external factors such as sanctions – and quite possibly striking out again at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure or Persian Gulf shipping, as the general in charge of the U.S. Central Command warned this weekend.

It also closes the door to substantial reforms and leaves Iran’s leaders stuck in a cycle of escalating repression against their own people.

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Meanwhile, in Iraq, more than 300 people have died since protests broke out in mid-October. That includes five killed by security forces over the weekend, when nearly 100 were also hurt. The complaints are similar, if for slightly different reasons from those in Iran. “Young people see the state’s immense oil wealth disappearing into the pockets of political and business elites,” Chatham House researcher Renad Mansour says, “while little is left over to invest in education, infrastructure and job creation.”

While Iran’s political system has been in place for decades, Iraq’s was only created after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and its politics is a constant competition for advantage among Shiites (many backed by Iran), Sunnis and Kurds. Previously, the government has gotten by with cosmetic changes. This time, demonstrators want to trash the system and start over again. But what they’ve done, Mansour says, is bring those feuding sectarian politicians together in their determination to crush the protests and preserve things largely as they are.

Protesters in both countries are vastly overmatched by the power of the security services, and in Iraq, by government-allied militias. The crowds are largely without recognized leaders, which means they probably can’t evolve into anything beyond a spontaneous expression of anger – but also makes it hard for governments to regain control by making a few key arrests. They’ll manage for now. But there will be a next time, and a time after that. Then, who knows?