What Iran’s last protest means to the Middle East (and the West)

Many media mentioned that the last protest in Iran was sparked by the increase of egg price in many cities in the country. While it sounds a bit like an oversimplification, it might not be one because to some extent it is true. Rising unemployment rate and skyrocketing commodity prices, combined with widespread corruption and bad management by the government have resulted in an economic grievance for Iranian people. Many of them were taking it to the streets. They demanded for the resignation of Hassan Rouhani, the current president, who was only reelected last year.

Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei meets Iran’s president Rouhani. courtesy: Business Insider

The people who protested the government were not happy with what the government is doing, primarily because the government is not fulfilling their promise to better the economy of Iran in the coming years after they got elected. They were primarily fueled by anger and dissatisfaction, not only to the government, but interestingly also to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Guards is known for their support to foreign groups. The Iranian people know it and do not like it. The Guards is also known for their involvement and meddling in many places in the Middle East such as Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. The Guards has poured billions of dollars to maintain their supports to those armed groups (according to the figure published by The Economist, January 6th 2018). The Economist also writes that the money is also used to ‘propping up a blood-soaked dictator in Syria’.

What makes the people angry is the fact that the government under Rouhani is cutting the spending for the prosperity of the people and spend the money for the Guards to support foreign armed groups in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and many other places in the Middle East.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. courtesy: Council on Foreign Relations

The Iranian government has taken various measures to suppress dissent in the country. The government is advantaged by the fact that they have the control over Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Telegram, a platform which — according to The Economist — has more than 40 million subscribers in Iran.

In comparison to the protest and uprising in 1979 and 2009, government’s response in 2018 has no meaningful difference. The government has repeatedly accused the protesters in previous protests and uprisings as “foreign agent” — and is likely to continue to do so. They have always been labelled as that and will remain get called as such, as long as the current regime still holds power in Iran.

The current regime seized the power in 1979 by blaming the West for the hardship that they faced back then. This time, Iranian leaders blame the United States and Britain for what happen. They call the English language as a “cultural invasion” and therefore ban it from primary school — a move that aims to further isolate its young population from “foreign cultural invasion”, or to put it simply, Western influence.

The United States, that is blamed by Iran for the uprising, has responded by saying that Iranian government is “brutal and corrupt”. The condition is exacerbated by the fact that the US and Iran are now involved in a heating situation in regards to Iran Nuclear Deal, that was started by Trump’s unwillingness to certify that Iran has complied to the provision under the deal on October 2017 (The Economist, January 13th 2018).

Another response comes from the European Union through its foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini. Although the European Union supports freedom to demonstrate, the Union does not seem like it will follow suit its American counterpart by saying anything in a strong tone.

On the other side, there is France’s Emmanuel Macron, who openly criticized the US for their support to the protesters. There is no clear reason for this apart from France’s newly regular position to oppose Trump’s foreign policy. Although, some would say that it is in France’s and EU’s interest to keep the Iran Nuclear Deal — and therefore pleasing Iran would be one of the means to achieve it.

This protest will give little impact to the Middle East — if there is any. The only change that is possible to occur will only happen if the protesters succeeded to bring the government to their knees and to “take back control” over the spending of the Guards, so that the Guards stops consuming the money that should have been allocated for the prosperity of the people. If the government cuts the flow of money to armed groups in various Middle Eastern countries, more money will go to the people and to ensure their good condition and well-being.

Now the protest has been quelled. However, the poor economic condition and the resentment in Iran have not been put to an end. If there is a way to return prosperity to the country, it would be to listen to the people because Iran is a republic after all.

International Relations enthusiast