By No Labels
Massive protests in Iran have left at least 21 people dead this week as tens of thousands of Iranians in towns across the country agitated for better economic conditions.
It’s a volatile situation, with implications for regional security and U.S. foreign policy. As the clashes continue, here’s what you need to know.
The protests are driven by economic conditions and anger at Iran’s government. Years of sanctions by the U.S. the European Union and the United Nations have left Iran’s economy battered. The situation has improved recently, as the nuclear deal lifts those sanctions. But the cost of everyday goods like groceries has increased as much as 40 percent and roughly four out of every 10 Iranians are unemployed.
Meanwhile, the cost of oil remains low, which hurts an exporting country, and Iran’s authoritarian government continues to make unpopular decisions. For example, it spends money abroad, funding military operations in Syria and elsewhere, and proposed a budget that cut domestic spending on the poor and raised fuel prices.
The protesters are targeting the government. Iran has a parliament and a president, a role held by Hassan Rouhani since 2013. Yet most power is vested in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a Muslim cleric who has control over foreign policy, the military and can veto parliamentary actions. The protesters have named Khamenei, chanting “death to the dictator.”
Protests in 2009 were quashed by a government crackdown. Dozens were killed and hundreds were arrested. This time, no such action has taken place yet, though the government has limited access to social media tools that could help activists organize.
The two protests have some big differences. In 2009, the actions had specific leaders with specific demands, and the protests were focused in major cities like Tehran. This week’s protests have yet to produce any major leaders or demands, and they are spread throughout small and mid-sized cities all over Iran.
The deal in 2015 between Iran and six major world powers called for Iran to scale back its nuclear program. In exchange, Iran would resume selling oil on world markets; limitations on the country’s banking system would lift; and the U.S. would stop sanctioning companies that do business with Iran. Also important, Iran would gain access to roughly $100 billion in frozen assets from previous oil sales worldwide.
The deal has been controversial. Critics argue that, rather than using the assets to improve life in Iran, the government used it to play a larger military role in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere in the region. Within Iran, some say that the nuclear deal set expectations for economic recovery unrealistically high. Whatever the case, the deal has also been attacked by President Trump as too lenient. Now, whether the U.S. continues to participate is up to Trump — and his actions could impact the protests.
President Trump has signaled support for the protesters using his Twitter account, but the protests may have complicated U.S. policy. Later this month, the president will have to decide whether to continue to waive sanctions as part of the nuclear deal. Reimposing oil sanctions could squeeze Iran’s leaders, but it may also allow them to blame the U.S. for Iran’s economy. It could also send a mixed signal to protesters.