Protests Erupt Across Iran: What You Need to Know

Amid high stakes, it's a crisis that the United States ought to stay out of

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran on December 30th. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

It isn't yet clear if the wave of protests that has swept across Iran since last Thursday is the start of a sustained popular drive for political change in that clergy-ruled theocracy, or if it's merely a short-lived outburst that will be handily suppressed by the authorities. So far, nearly two dozen people have been killed amid scattered violence, and many hundreds jailed. No one – not Iran's leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, not the protesters, and certainly not the White House – have any idea what happens next.

But the stakes are enormous. Iran is a country of 80 million people, at the very heart of the world's oil-rich Persian Gulf. It straddles at a geopolitical crossroads amid at least four nearby civil wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And now its future is uncertain. Because the stakes are so high, it's especially important that President Trump take a deep breath before doing something that turns an internal Iranian political crisis into a U.S.-Iran showdown.

But it's hard to have any confidence that he'll do the right thing, which is to sit back, let the situation unfold and not stoke the flames. He's already unleashed a string of tweets attacking Iran. And, adding to worry about Trump's response, in mid-January the president faces a deadline about whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted as a result of the 2015 accord over the nation's nuclear program – or even to withdraw from the agreement altogether. In October, Trump decertified the accord, saying it was not in America's interest, and he demanded that either Congress act to legislate new sanctions or he would unravel the agreement once and for all in January. Congress, however, did nothing. It's possible now that Trump will use the unrest in Iran, and the crackdown by Iranian authorities, as an excuse to undermine or destroy the hard-won agreement signed by Obama's administration.

The eruption in Iran, the biggest anti-government protests since the ones that followed the much disputed reelection of then President Ahmadinejad in 2009, came seemingly out of nowhere. It all began with a December 28th street protest by a few hundred people in Mashhad, the country's second largest city, in northwest Iran. That initial protest may have been organized by hardliners seeking to undermine Rouhani, a moderate who was elected in 2013 and reelected last year with support from Iran's reformists. If so, it backfired, and the protests spread uncontrollably to four or five other towns within hours. Over the next several days, at least 13 Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, became scenes of mostly peaceful, but occasionally violent, marches and demonstrations, reportedly involving tens of thousands. Though reports are often confusing and hard to come by, it appears that at the start the focus of the crowds' anger was Iran's faltering economy, especially unemployment and the high prices of essential goods. Much of the anger was stoked by reports that the new Iranian budget would end key subsidies that provide a safety net for Iran's poor.

That Iran's economy would trigger protests isn't surprising. For decades, Iran was plagued by an ever-intensifying set of international sanctions that cut deeply into its economy, especially its ability to export oil and gas. Although some of those sanctions eased when Iran signed the nuclear accord with the United States and five other world powers, others are still in place, and the effects of the earlier ones linger. Oil and gas exports have rebounded, to a degree, but the benefits of the increased oil income have yet to be felt in many parts of the economy. As a result, even though inflation has lessened and the economy has picked up, the impact of the nuclear deal has yet to filter down to most Iranians. For many of them, the nuclear deal hasn't led to better jobs, higher wages and economic growth, and they're suffering from what economists call the effects of rising expectations: Put simply, President Rouhani told them that things would get a lot better, and so far that hasn't happened.

More worrisome to Iran's leadership – to Rouhani's government as well as to hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the all-powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – is that the protests quickly changed their focus from economics to politics. In city after city, there were chants of "Death to Rouhani!" and the even more confrontational "Death to the dictator!" – meaning Khamenei. Protesters also complained about Iran's military and financial support to factions in civil wars and conflicts from Lebanon and Syria to Palestine.

But can the protests gel beyond diverse and widely scattered actions to become a national movement that can force revolutionary change in Iran? So far, that doesn't seem likely. By all accounts, the protesters aren't part of any discernible organization, and they lack leadership. There aren't any visible opposition leaders in Iran who haven't either been jailed or fled into exile. The putative leader of the 2009 Green Movement, which coalesced around Mir Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who challenged Ahmadinejad, has been under house arrest since then, and there's no sign the reformists who backed the Mousavi support the rebellion now underway. Under those conditions, it seems very unlikely that the system that sustains the Islamic Republic of Iran – led by thousands of clerics who are backed by a formidable array of security organs – is about to fall.

So far, the government and its armed wing – including the police, the paramilitary Basij and the all-powerful IRGC – has yet to unleash its full might against the people in the streets. Taken by surprise, they're still trying to decide what to do. "The vast majority of the Iranian government has spent the last few days trying to figure out what their response should be," Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council, tells Rolling Stone. "They were caught flatfooted."

In the midst of all this, the United States arguably has little or no leverage to have a real impact in Iran. Back in 2009, Marashi was an official in Obama's State Department, working in the Office of Iranian Affairs during the huge protests against Ahmadinejad. At the time, he says, there were people urging the United States to act forcefully, somehow, in support of the protesters, who took to the streets by the millions. The consensus the United States came to then was that there was little the U.S. could do beyond verbally supporting the protests. Now, with protests on a far smaller scale, that's even more true, says Marashi. "The ability of the United States to do something is very limited," he says. "The problems are Iranian, the actors are Iranian, and thus the solutions have to be Iranian."

Or as Gary Sick put it, the United States ought to choose its words very carefully. "People are demonstrating for Iranian reasons. And we can cheer or not cheer. And it's going to have very little impact on what they do," said Sick, who served as President Carter's White House adviser on Iran during the 1979 Iranian revolution and the U.S embassy hostage crisis. Speaking to NPR, Sick added, "The [Iranian] government will listen to what we say, and they will remember it. And they'll turn those words back against us later on if they want to. Or they may use it as an excuse to crack down on saying that this is all a U.S.-inspired operation. But on the street, in reality, our statements have only marginal effect."

Judging by his intemperate comments so far, it isn't at all clear President Trump understands that. Each insult he delivers against Iran's government has the opposite effect of what's intended: Rather than inspiring protesters to believe pro-democracy forces around the world are in sympathy with their cause, Trump's angry denunciations make it easier for Khamenei to denounce the protests as an American-backed conspiracy. As the events have unfolded, Trump's tweets have said, "Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. ... TIME FOR CHANGE!" In another tweet, he said that "all of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism," adding, "The U.S. is watching!"

Khamenei has responded on cue: "In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic." Of course, there's no evidence the United States or other adversaries of Iran have utilized any of those tools, yet. However, a few months ago the Trump administration appointed a hardline CIA covert operations officer, Michael D'Andrea – nicknamed the "Dark Prince" – to lead the agency's Iran operations, and it's certainly not impossible that a set of covert actions against Iran is either already in motion or being planned. Since his visit to Saudi Arabia last summer, Trump has reportedly encouraged both Saudi Arabia and Israel to prepare a tripartite anti-Iran strategy with the United States.

In his initial response, Rouhani tried to walk a middle ground, according to the BBC, acknowledging that protesters had valid economic grievances. Iranians, he said, are "completely free to express their criticism of the government or stage protests," while at the same time warning that the government won't tolerate violence. "People want to talk about economic problems, corruption and lack of transparency in the function of some of the organs and want the atmosphere to be more open," he added. "The requests and demands of the people should be taken note of."

But Rouhani was sharply critical of Trump's tweets. "This gentleman in America, who is now trying to sympathize with our nation, appears to have forgotten that he called the Iranian nation terrorists several months ago," he said. "This man, who is an enemy of the Iranian nation from the top of his head to his very toes, has no right to sympathize with Iranians."

If Trump later this month decides to upend the Iran nuclear accord, as he's promised he'll do, it could make a highly unstable situation far worse. It would provoke a strong anti-American response from Iran, including the possibility that the nation would intensify its military engagement in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and it could conceivably raise tensions between the naval forces of Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf. It would convince many Iranians, including many of those now protesting in the streets, that the United States under Trump is irredeemably hostile to their country. And it would sharply raise tensions between the United States and Europe, since the Europeans would have to choose between joining the United States in confronting Iran or breaking with Washington to maintain their end of the Iran nuclear deal.