For the past two weeks a large number of Iranians, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have been taking part in protest marches in more than 100 cities across the nation to vent their anger against a system that they consider to be corrupt, incompetent and oppressive.
At the same time the government is facing the threat of massive bread shortages later this year amid reports that wheat stocks have fallen to a record low while talks to purchase 6.2 million tons of wheat, more than half of Iran’s annual consumption, from Russia seem to have stalled.
There is other bad news for the government as oil exports which have been picking up thanks to the Biden administration’s decision to ignore sanctions imposed by Trump, show a downturn partly because of competition from Russia, which is offering significant discounts to capture a larger part of Iran’s market share in Asia. Also bad news is the deadlock in Vienna talks to revive the so-called “nuke deal” and let the Islamic Republic off the hook of some sanctions.
So, should we expect the Islamic Republic facing the perfect storm in what could become a summer of discontent?
This is not the first time that Iranians try to show their anger at the state of their country by protest marches. In fact, some, not to say many, Iranians have been doing so since he very first weeks of rule by Khomeinist clerics in 1979.
In the past decade Iran has witnessed at least three major nationwide uprisings that shook the regime but led to no major change of direction. In every case, the regime succeeded in reasserting its control with a mixture of bribes and brutality while taking advantage of the fact that the protests did not produce a coherent leadership at the national level.
So, why should this time be different?
Although it is still too early to tell, some facts may point to that direction.
The first is that previous uprisings were limited in their overall political scope.
Some, like the March 1979 mass demonstration, were related to single issues, like protest against enforced hijab or crackdown against particular political groups as was the case in 1981 and 1982.
Other protests were related to sectional interests such as the losses suffered by small savers in Tehran’s stock exchange and investment in bogus companies.
Other single issues that prompted protests included transport and sugar-cane workers fighting for better wages and working conditions, and teachers demanding greater academic freedom and a fairer scale of salaries.
Other protests were related to single political issues, such as the Green movement against alleged election fraud that gave Mahmud Ahmadinezhad a second presidential term.
Despite their different motivations and themes all those protests had one feature in common: none was aimed at regime change and all could be contained within the present system.
This time, however, the latest protests appear to be different in a number of ways.
First, the main theme, although not the immediately acknowledged one, is regime change.
The movement was triggered by the collapse of a tall building, the Metropole Tower in the southern oil city of Abadan which claimed dozens of lives. Initially, the tragedy was blamed on an unscrupulous local cow-boy builder looking for quick profit.
Within days, however, a leaflet circulated in Abadan, a number of questions: “Who gave him the building permit? The local mayor? But who appointed the mayor? The Interior Minister? But who appointed the Interior Minister?” The leaflet ended with the Persian proverb: The fish rots from the head, not from the tail!
For the first time some protesters started chanting “Down with Khamenei”, targeting the “Supreme Guide”. He fueled popular anger by refusing even to refer to the tragedy for several days before asking his office to issue an insipid note of solidarity with the victims. This prompted further anti-regime slogans such as “Islamic Republic should be dissolved” and “Sayyed Ali”, leave the country!”
Unlike previous times, Khamenei missed the opportunity to pretend to side with protesters in blaming unidentified officials for not being “Islamic” enough.
Another difference this time was that many protesters, perhaps even a majority, represented a wide spectrum of opinion.
In some cities, at least 10 or 12 we could check with some reliability, slogans such as “Reza Shah, Bless Your soul!” hinted at a surge of nostalgia about the monarchy. But, unlike some previous occasions, even those protesters who felt no nostalgia about the old monarchy, did not challenge those slogans let alone part ways with demonstrators who chanted them.
This is important because it may indicate that the regime cannot work its way out of a tight corner by inviting Iranians to continue fighting the fallen monarchy rather than the incumbent despotism.
And that may signal an even more important development: a move towards national consensus on the need for a change of direction if not straightforward regime change.
So far such a move had been stalled because the regime’s many opponents regarded it as their second choice, each being its own first choice. That meant that each group would rather see the present regime remain in place to prevent a rival opposition group from replacing it.
It is too early to say whether there has been a major change in that mindset. But from what one could gather based on incomplete information, Iran’s disparate opposition groups seem to be moving towards some at least tactical cohesion.
A potentially more important new feature is the support shown by a part of the Shiite clerical establishment in Qom that had tried to hide behind the quietest tradition while maintaining courteous relations with the ruling clergy and its military-security support-base.
The protests have also opened what could become a breach within the Khomeinist establishment with some members of the Islamic Majlis (the ersatz parliament), a number of state-funded celebrities and “Islamic” intellectuals, masters of equivocation, mumbling expressions of support for protesters calling for regime change.
Whether the protests continue or where they will end up it is too early to tell. But one thing is clear: something has snapped between the Khomeinist regime and many Iranians, producing a gap that can no longer be bridged with the usual slogans.
As we move towards a summer of discontent, the Islamic Republic is domestically in its weakest position in years. Is Iran moving towards a crossroad? We have to wait and see.