Thus far, the unrest in Iran has not shown signs of endangering the regime, but the stress of the protests on economic issues gives them the potential to grow into such a threat, according to Meir Litvak, a Tel Aviv University specialist on Iran.
“Right now there is no way of knowing,” he said. “But the fact that it is economic-based gives it potential for a lot of people to join in.”
The unrest, which marked its fifth day on Monday, comes against the background of the failure of the lifting of sanctions as a result of the 2015 nuclear agreement to improve the lot of most Iranians. Youth unemployment is at about 28.8%, with overall unemployment at 12.4%, according to official statistics. That and recent increases in prices of basic commodities such as eggs, along with plans to hike fuel prices and resentment over government corruption, helped fuel the initial outburst on Thursday in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city.
While the unrest has spread throughout the country, the numbers until now do not point to a trajectory of regime change, Litvak said.
“We haven’t seen a qualitative change,” he said. “Going from 5,000 to 10,000 protesters doesn’t make much difference. Going from 5,000 to 200,000 makes a major difference.”
In the 2009 Green Revolution protests against president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets. But their demands were purely political: to nullify the reelection and rectify cheating in the voting.
“By not bringing in economic issues, the protesters failed to attract important social groups” such as workers and merchants, Litvak said. The 2009 protests were also confined to the major cities.
But the current protests, which quickly took on a political hue with calls for the ouster of supreme leader Ali Khameinei, are taking place throughout Iran.
“Today, there is a very impressive geographical spread all over Iran,” Litvak said, “and even more importantly, it includes many small towns where you wouldn’t imagine the population would be politicized. People who weren’t politicized are now active.”
“This shows the level of discontent has spread to larger segments of society,” he said. “If the agenda is economic, it has a better chance of attracting workers, government employees and merchants all feeling things are not working. This [unrest] has the potential to spread further because it is economic. The question is: Will it? I don’t know.”
According to Raz Zimmt, a specialist on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies, “There is always potential for endangerment of the regime, but at the moment I don’t see it happening.”
The numbers of demonstrators at present are too small for that, he said, and being that the security forces are not taking more drastic measures shows the regime does not feel threatened.
However, Zimmt said, it could develop otherwise, for example, if a revolutionary guard fires into a crowd, killing a large number of people. “Then suddenly you might see hundreds of thousands in the streets,” he said.
“There is no doubt there is an economic basis, but what we’ve seen in the recent days are calls against the regime and the leader,” Zimmt said. “The fact that it is not exclusively economic or exclusively political gives strength to this and enables different sectors of the public to cooperate, something we didn’t see in 2009 when the protests were only political, and the protesters were mainly educated middle class.”
But the combination of economically driven protesters like those seen in Mashhad and political protesters elsewhere “blunts the message and makes it less radical,” he said.
“I’m not sure those who demonstrated in Mashhad to improve the economic situation or against inflation actually want regime change,” Zimmt said. “What they really want is to improve the economic situation.”
Many of the macroeconomic indicators have actually been positive since the lifting of sanctions, with a doubling of exports, impressive economic growth and inflation dropping to single digits for the first time in 25 years. But that has not trickled down to most Iranians.
The government signed deals with Airbus and Boeing to replace an old fleet of civilian aircraft. “Having better airplanes for the Iranian airlines doesn’t put more food on the table of the average person in southern Iran,” Litvak said.
Twelve people have died in the protests to date, and Litvak terms the regime’s handling of the protests thus far “controlled repression.”
“You repress, but not stupidly,” he said. “You do it in a measured way.”