On December 28, protests broke out in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani submitted a budget to parliament that would impose new taxes and slash government subsidies. The following day, the unrest spread across the country, from large cities to small provincial towns, quickly becoming Iran’s largest and most intense demonstrations since the 2009 “Green Movement” protests. The recent unrest was significant not only because participants were more economically, socially, and geographically diverse than they were in 2009, but because the regime’s physical crackdown never materialized with the same intensity as it did nine years ago. This was partially a result of the protests’ economic—rather than political—motivations, as well as Iran’s improved online censorship capabilities. Fundamentally, however, the regime’s response lacked the same physical brutality as in 2009 due to a deliberate—and correct—regime calculation that the Islamic Republic stood to lose more by violently confronting demonstrations than by allowing them to fizzle. This calculation stemmed from Iran’s changed geopolitical landscape, in which it is steadily reintegrating into the global economy while facing rising threats from regional rivals. Bucking predictions that the recent protests portended the fall of the Islamic Republic, the regime’s decision to avoid escalating the unrest shows that it is equally adept at clinging to power by avoiding violent confrontation as it is by waging it. Protests and Regime Response: 2009 vs. Today In 2009, hundreds of thousands of primarily young and relatively wealthy protesters took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities after authorities declared an improbable re-election landslide for then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In response, the regime cracked down harshly. Up to 200 Iranians died amid reports that security services had used live ammunition against protesters. Iran’s judiciary acknowledged detaining 4,000 people in the two months after protests began. It arrested many more activists and journalists in subsequent years in an effort to prevent renewed unrest. To be sure, Iran’s most recent protests were far from peaceful. Major media sources estimated that 22 people had died and up to 1,000 had been arrested by the time the protests receded on January 3. International media reported several non-specific accounts of people dying from gunfire, and at least one account of demonstrators opening fire on police. Security services used tear gas and flash bombs to disperse the protests. Yet, many observers noted that authorities did not react with the same level of brutality as they had in 2009. The recent protests produced many fewer victims of violence than the Green Movement protests, and fewer—if any—accounts of authorities using live ammunition or torture to suppress the demonstrations. President Rouhani even attempted to placate the protesters, characterizing the demonstrations as an opportunity for the country to address its economic problems. Though a slight and perhaps deceptive rhetorical concession, no high-level Iranian official similarly acknowledged protesters’ legitimate grievances in 2009. Why Were These Protests Less Violent Than Those in 2009? There are several reasons for the regime’s less heavy-handed response. First, Iran’s leaders recognized that while rising costs might spark protests, economic factors are unlikely to threaten the regime’s underlying security. Explanations of the protests as a result of inflation and rising prices obscured the extent to which those trends defined Iran’s economy far more acutely during the height of international sanctions on Iran from 2010 to 2014. Heeding the famous quip of his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, that “The [1980 Islamic] Revolution wasn’t about the price of watermelons,” Iran’s Supreme Leader recognized that the protests did not constitute the sort of entrenched and expertly organized political movement that would be necessary to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Second, authorities learned in 2009 how effective electronic censorship could be in quelling unrest without inciting sufficient violence to invite global condemnation. During and after those protests, authorities throttled Internet speeds and blocked access to social networks, limiting activists’ ability to communicate and organize. Since 2009, Iran’s “cyber army” has become increasingly adept at controlling citizens’ access to web-based messaging tools, even as mobile broadband penetration and social media use have risen rapidly in Iran in recent years. As a result, when the recent protests gained momentum, authorities blocked the web and popular social platforms, and the protests waned. Iran’s New Political Landscape The most fundamental reasons Iran’s leaders chose not to escalate the situation, however, stemmed from their country’s radically altered geopolitical circumstances relative to nine years ago. In 2009, Iran had little to lose by waging a violent protest crackdown. Its economy was isolated and withering under successive rounds of UN and unilateral U.S. sanctions. Today, Iran is steadily reintegrating into the global economy after agreeing in 2015 to limit uranium enrichment in exchange for the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. While its resulting economic gains have marginally benefitted ordinary citizens, Iran’s oil sector—which remains in regime control—has gained much needed foreign investment. A violent protest crackdown would have risked re-isolating the regime politically and economically, particularly as it has drawn sympathy from European countries over America’s pending decision to unilaterally abandon its adherence to the nuclear accord. Iran’s regional political landscape is also much changed from 2009. During the Green Movement protests, the Islamic Republic was a theocratic Shiite stalwart in a generally stable Middle East dominated by entrenched, secularist Sunni Arab autocrats. Today, Iran is locked in simmering conflicts throughout a region fundamentally altered by the “Arab Spring” through its financial and military support for militant actors throughout the Middle East. The regime’s support for these predominantly Shiite factions, including the Assad government in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, the anti-Israel militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, have provoked the ire of regional nemesis Saudi Arabia. Aggressive counter-measures by ascendant Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman have pushed the countries toward war. With Iranian protesters voicing anger over their government’s continued support for foreign causes amid a sluggish economy, a broader and more violent crackdown against demonstrations would have emboldened Iran’s Arab rivals and rendered even more unpopular the regime’s support for regional proxies, risking prolonged unrest. The Regime Survives While Iran’s most recent protests have faded and authorities have released many of the demonstrators they detained, a wider and more violent regime crackdown remains possible in the months ahead, as occurred in 2009. Yet despite this possibility, policymakers can glean insight from Iranian authorities’ deliberate weighing of the political and economic costs associated with a violent direct response to the country’s recent protests. The regime’s calculation demonstrates that in matters of domestic as well as international security, the Islamic Republic will not necessarily pursue the harshest or most definitive course of action but the one that best guarantees its long-term survival. In light of Iran’s altered geopolitical circumstances, the regime recognized that in the context of the country’s recent unrest, survival was most assured by refraining from the brutality it demonstrated in 2009 and ensuring the protests’ failure through less violent means. About the author: Jason Starr was a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. State Department from 2010-2015. He served in the Department’s Operations Center, as a desk officer in Washington covering Iran and Middle East, and as a UAE-based reporting officer covering politics and economics in Iran and the Persian Gulf states. His opinions are his own and do not reflect those of his present or prior employers.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.