Amidst big pro-government demonstrations yesterday the authorities are claiming that the protest wave which began in the Mashhad on 28th December 2017 has ended, and that quiet has returned to Iran’s towns and cities.
It is not always easy to verify information coming from Iran, not so much because the government seeks to suppress information but because the flow of information from Iran is so intensely politicised.
This together with the relative absence of independent reporters on the ground makes it sometimes difficult to form a view of what is actually going on.
However the government’s claim that the protest wave has ended does seem to correspond with information coming from Iran, which suggests that the protests are in the main over.
Assuming that this information is true – as seems likely – what general conclusions about the protest wave can be drawn?
(1) The Iranian authorities claim that the total number of people involved in the protests was 15,000 across the whole of Iran.
There is no independent corroboration for this figure, but the overall impression is that the protests were scattered and small, making it likely that it is true.
The fact that there has been considerable violence during the protests with twenty or more people killed tends to bear this out.
Whilst this is not a hard and fast rule, it is generally the case that violence increases the smaller protests become as the more militant and violent protesters are no longer restrained by the peaceful majority of protesters.
Needless to say the more violent protests become the more likely it is that the great majority of people who might be willing to join peaceful protests will be scared off doing so and will stay away.
The result is that as the violence escalates the size of the protests diminishes, until eventually they either fizzle out or are suppressed.
The fact that there was an escalation of violence in the last days of the protests, and the fact that they took place mainly at night, seems to conform to this pattern, and suggests that the authorities are right in saying that what began in Mashhad on 28th December 2017 as a peaceful protest about economic conditions over the course of the following days degenerated into simple rioting.
Needless to say if the total number of protesters was no more than 15,000 then the claims by Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, other US officials, the EU, and Western commentators, that Iran – a nation of 80 million people – was facing a massive protest wave were simply wrong.
(2) The fact that the rioting spread to various small provincial towns across Iran suggests a degree of coordination amongst the rioters but the extent of this should not be exaggerated.
It is not unusual for rioters – and the criminal elements which invariably rise to the surface during riots – to communicate and coordinate with each other, and social media platforms like Telegram nowadays make that very easy.
(3) Was there any larger involvement by outsiders in the riots as has been widely claimed, including by the Iranian authorities themselves?
On 31st December 2017 the US based but often well-informed internet publication Al-Monitor had this to say about the use of Telegram to coordinate the riots
It is also becoming clear that the key mode of mobilization is the popular smartphone app Telegram, which has some 40 million users in Iran. Al-Monitor has previously closely covered the popularity of Telegram, how the authorities have sought to control its spread and how it has changed Iranian media. In April, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace in Iran required administrators of channels with more than 5,000 followers to register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The move followed crackdowns on administrators of Reformist channels ahead of the May 2017 presidential elections. President Hassan Rouhani, allied with the Reformist camp, easily won a second term in those elections.
Amad News, a channel on Telegram, appears to have played a pivotal role in the wave of protests. Reportedly administered by exiled journalist Rohollah Zam — a son of a senior Reformist cleric said to have escaped the country after being accused of having links with foreign intelligence agencies — the channel had just under a million followers on the eve of the protests. This number ballooned before Minister of Information Technology and Communications Mohammad Jahromi on Dec. 30 successfully requested that Telegram founder Pavel Durov shut down Amad News on account of its reported incitement of violence. Remarkably, the Iranian request was made publicly on Twitter, a medium that remains filtered in the country. Mirror channels that emerged following the shutdown of Amad News also were closed, though one mirror site was functioning and had close to 900,000 followers as of this writing. In addition, the Iranian authorities have apparently moved to restrict mobile data services in some areas, although broadband appears to be functioning. Moreover, Telegram and Instagram, which have both been unfiltered in Iran thus far, are said to have been “temporarily” filtered in some regions.
While the method of mobilization is becoming clear, it is still unknown who, if any person or group, is leading the protests. The absence of a discernible leader has left the authorities unable to point the finger, such as in 2009, beyond the usual accusations blaming foreign intelligence services and hostile states. The speed of the geographical spread of the protests along with the apparent lack of a leader has, according to some accounts, even left some protesters puzzled, let alone most political observers. This could provide an opportunity for a variety of groups to hijack the protests.
Rohollah Zam, the exiled journalist referred to in this passage, has been repudiated by his father, the reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Zam because of his criticism of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.
I have not been able to find out which foreign intelligence agency the Iranian authorities accuse him of involvement with.
However it is clear from their statements over the last few days that the foreign intelligence agency which the Iranian authorities believe had a hand in the riots was Saudi intelligence, not the intelligence agencies of the US and Israel.
Assuming that a foreign intelligence agency was involved in the riots, as is at some level likely – the chanting of political slogans during some of the riots after all strongly suggests it – and assuming that the riots really were intended to prepare the ground for a Maidan style protest movement which would eventually bring about regime change, then the small number of protesters – just 15,000 across the whole country – means that the intelligence agency in question has little to show for its efforts.
Clearly Iran is not ripe for a Maidan style colour revolution. Though there is widespread dissatisfaction with the government, there appears to be little support in the country for regime change, and the legitimacy of Iran’s Islamic Republic is not widely disputed.
(4) As for the trigger for the original largely peaceful protest on 28th December 2017 in Mashhad, it is now clear that this was not the sudden one-off increase in egg and poultry prices as has been widely reported, but the Rouhani government’s proposed budget, which proposes large cuts in subsidies in order to release budget funds for infrastructure development.
Many poorer Iranians have come to depend on these subsidies, and like the monetisation of pensioner benefits in Russia – which in 2005 triggered what remains by far the biggest protest wave Russia has witnessed during the Putin era, dwarfing in scale the election protests of 2011-2012 – the cutting of these subsidies in Iran is deeply unpopular however much economic sense Rouhani’s liberal economic advisers say it makes.
(5) A further factor which some are suggesting may lie behind the protests – mentioned in conversations some Iranian acquaintances have had with me – is the difficulty young people in Iran are having finding jobs that match their qualifications.
The Iranian economy despite its recent growth is struggling to find jobs for the one million young Iranians who are joining the workforce every year.
Though unemployment in Iran is average for its region, heavy investment in education since the Iranian Revolution makes the younger generation of Iranians better educated than ever before and unusually well-educated for the region.
Inevitably this high education level increases expectations, and leads to anger and disappointment when conditions in the economy mean that these expectations cannot be fulfilled.
One particular point I have heard several people make is that Iran is currently experiencing a demographic bulge caused by the Iranian government’s previous encouragement of a high birth rate in order to replace the heavy manpower losses Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
That policy has now been reversed, causing the birth rate to fall – Iran is unusual in this region in having both demographic and family planning policies – but in the meantime it has led to a large increase in the number of young people coming of age now, which has put Iran’s social and educational services under severe strain, as well as making it difficult for the economy to provide them all with jobs.
The one observation I would make about this claim is however that whilst accounts of the rioters make it clear that they are overwhelmingly young men – as is always the case in riots – they do not seem to be the sort of educated young men that are being talked about in these accounts.
On the contrary they seem to be the less educated young men coming from economically poorer backgrounds who form the majority of rioters – and of the criminal class – in all countries.
Perhaps there is a wider dissatisfaction with their social and economic conditions amongst Iran’s young people which provides the background for the riots. However I would want to see much more evidence for this than I have seen so far before I accepted it.
(6) The fact that the economy is growing despite all the problems is nonetheless probably the reason why the protests and the riots have not spread to any significant degree to the big urban centres such as Tehran and Tabriz.
Though living standards are still well below their pre-recession levels, most urban Iranians have experienced some improvement in their lives in the last two years, and this has almost certainly taken some of the edge off the discontent.
This together with the heavier policing to be expected in large urban centres means that the protests and the rioting have not spread there.
In summary, it seems that what Iran has experienced has been less a protest wave and more a riot wave, though the rioting was triggered by what were initially genuine economic protests caused by worries about the government’s pending budget.
In England the spread of rioting across provincial towns is a relatively frequent occurrence, and during the last big riot wave in 2011 the use of social media by rioters to coordinate their actions across the country was widely in evidence, just as it has been during the recent riots in Iran.
As in Iran the reasons for the rioting that regularly takes place in English provincial towns is widely discussed, especially in academic circles, but no firm consensus has ever been reached about it.
The key point is that whatever the cause of rioting, and wherever it happens, precisely because rioting is a form of criminal activity it is not usually considered to have any wider political significance.
What is known about the riots in Iran suggest that they are no different.
The fact that the riots in Iran have been reported by some people differently as suggesting some sort of imminent revolution looks for the moment to be more a product of wishful thinking than a true assessment of what has been actually going on.
As for Nikki Haley’s attempt to get no less a body than the UN Security Council to debate the riots, that is just silly.