People protest in Tehran, Iran December 30, 2017 in this still image from a video obtained by REUTERS.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Widespread demonstrations protesting the deteriorating economic situation continued throughout Iran on Tuesday.
Pictures and video posted to social media and news websites show thousands of demonstrators marching past striking merchants’ shuttered stores – even in Tehran’s central bazaar, a bastion of religious conservatism in the cosmopolitan capital – and closed shops in Kermanshah and Tabriz as well. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators approaching the parliament building in the capital, the BBC and other media outlets reported.
For Professor David Menashri, Founding Director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and a leading expert on Iran, this news has a familiar resonance.
“Two years before the Islamic Revolution, I lived in Iran,” Menashri told The Jerusalem Post
. “I saw what was bothering the Iranian people. The country was rich and the people were poor. And it’s repeating now.”
“It was a revolution for bread and liberty, welfare and freedom,” he said. “Forty years later, there is no greater liberty or more freedom in Iran today than there was under the Shah – which was no democracy. Under the Shah to act or speak against the government was a crime; today it is a sin.”
This week’s demonstrations, the biggest in Iran since 2009, were sparked by rising prices and the plummeting value of Iran’s currency, the rial. It sank as low as 90,000 against the dollar in the unofficial market on Monday from 87,000 on Sunday and around 75,500 last Thursday, according to foreign exchange website Bonbast.com. At the end of last year, the rial stood at 42,890.
While Iran’s economic woes have become more severe in the wake of renewed US sanctions and President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accords, Menashri says that Iran’s problems run deeper.
“It is easy to attribute everything to American policy,” he said. “But even if you had all these sanctions removed, the economic situation would not be good.” Iran’s military involvement in the civil war in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and the country’s support for Hamas, have used up much of the influx of funds that Tehran received after signing the nuclear accords, Menashri said.
“Iranians know that a great deal of their economic misery is also because of mismanagement and corruption inside the country, because of priorities they don’t share,” he said.
Despite the fact that Iran’s parliament and president are popularly elected, and President Hassan Rouhani won a second term handily last year, Menashri explained that the elected government does not set the country’s economic priorities.
“In Iran, the president is only a president,” Menashri said. “I believe that Rouhani would have liked to have a different regional policy for Iran, but he doesn’t have a say. And with the withdrawal of the United States from the deal, the power of the conservatives, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, that control much of the economy, is much more than it used to be.”
However, although observers abroad have predicted that these and earlier protests could lead to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, Menashri is skeptical.
“It is possible that one of these cycles will expand and lead to that,” he said. “Ultimately, it will happen. The ground is ready, the displeasure is deep. But to come out with a larger movement, you need the intelligentsia and the underprivileged joining a movement together, as it was during the Islamic Revolution.”
During Menashri’s time in Iran on the eve of the 1979 revolution, economic problems also played a major role in the unrest leading up to the overthrow of leader Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
“The difference is that [then,] there were 37-38 million people, but today Iran is a country of more than 80 million people,” Menashri said. “To deal with the economic problems of a country the size of Iran today is much more difficult... it requires significant change in the priorities of the government – and to focus inside the country, rather than on policies of projecting power beyond the borders.”Juliane Helmhold contributed to this report.