Popular Protest and Political Infighting: The Impact of Domestic Unrest on Iranian Stability

Iran’s economic, environmental and ethical challenges must be confronted despite serious ideological differences between the clerical leadership and the presidential administration. Although external pressures sometimes provoke regime unity, clerical conservatives have often harassed and sabotaged President Rouhani, his ministers, and public servants. The president must implement an agenda which effectively manages Iran’s difficulties, without generating a conservative backlash.

The Islamic Republic is at a difficult juncture. Renewed US sanctions are expected to further undermine its battered economy and arrest Tehran’s efforts to break out of its isolation. And there is not much prospect for improvement on the domestic scene where discontent is rife, factional infighting continues and other significant challenges remain.

On the economic front, Iran suffers from double-digit inflationFootnote 33 , a severely devalued currency, a high unemployment rate, and a deceleration in growth to 3.8 per cent in 2017-2018, with a further drop expected in 2019Footnote 34 . Corruption is rampant, fuelling resentment towards the ruling eliteFootnote 35 , and smuggling is believed to be on the riseFootnote 36 . Many in Iranian civil society and even some members of the elite question the Rouhani administration’s ability to resolve these problems. Environmental issues also have become a major source of concern. From pollution to water shortages Footnote 37 , these questions have become politicised and provide a new arena for political infightingFootnote 38 . With a growing lack of opportunity, Iranians have taken to the streets to demand reform, with the largest country-wide protests since the 2009 elections breaking out in December 2017. While these demonstrations eventually subsided, the sentiments driving them did not; smaller-scale protests addressing water distribution, unpaid salaries, compulsory hijab laws, religious minority rights, and corruption continue in various parts of Iran.

Another significant challenge facing the Islamic Republic is its institutional future: will the system evolve to allow greater reform and openness, or will it close in on itself in reaction to renewed efforts to further isolate it? A key to the Islamic Republic’s survival will be how smoothly the succession process can be carried out to replace the Supreme Leader on his death.

This section examines the domestic threats to regime stability in Iran by studying the protests that broke out in late 2017 and analysing the status of the protest movement today as well as the state of domestic infighting.

The December 2017 wave of protests

On 28 December 2017, protests erupted in the conservative city of Mashhad over the rising cost of basic goods, and rapidly spread to more than 80 cities. Demonstrations are not new in Iran, with sit-ins and peaceful protests regular features, especially since President Hassan Rouhani took office. However, they were in sharp contrast to protests that have traditionally occurred in the capital, and which were led by the educated elite. The more recent demonstrations have not only been widespread but also featured bolder slogans, some of which have targeted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himselfFootnote 39 . They originated in and spread throughout rural, traditionally conservative areas not known for their political activism. As such, their sweep and slogans caught the elite off guard.

In the immediate aftermath, the government as usual blamed foreigners and seditionists for instigating the protests. Thousands were arrested, and more than 20 deaths were recorded in the crackdown that followedFootnote 40 . However, elements within the regime quickly changed course: certain clerics, members of the judiciary and government officials began to express sympathy for the protesters. President Rouhani made bold statements highlighting the legitimacy of the demonstrations. He dismissed claims that they were only economically driven, and called on the system to heed the people’s demandsFootnote 41 . He even highlighted the plight of the young in a jab at his hard line opponents, stating that the Islamic Republic would have to adapt to the lifestyles of the newer generation, rather than impose that of the older revolutionaries. Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran’s vice-president, also weighed in by dismissing the claim that foreign forces were behind the demonstrations and insisting that the country’s media should be the people’s voice. Most interesting, however, was Supreme Leader Khamenei’s response, acknowledging protestors’ demands, calling on the government to listen and accepting responsibility for the people’s discontentFootnote 42 . A short month later, he reiterated an apologyFootnote 43 .

The elite’s acknowledgement that protesters had valid reasons to be out on the streets is a significant departure from Iran’s usual response. The rumours that the hardline camp had incited the demonstrations to destabilise the Rouhani government led the administration to acknowledge its failures, thereby undermining the conservatives. But the change in approach is also a product of the regime’s pragmatism. The governing elite recognised that today’s Iran can no longer continue as it has. Iranians are young, connected, aware of life outside their borders and exasperated with the elite’s internal bickering. In order to stay in power, the Islamic Republic has to concede to certain demands and adjust to the changes occurring in Iranian society. Following the December 2017 and January 2018 protests, the system has grappled with how to reform while changing as little as possible.

The continuation of discontent: Who are the protestors?

While the major demonstrations have petered out, small-scale protests have continued in various parts of Iran. The movements address a wide range of issues such as water distribution, unpaid salaries, compulsory hijab laws, religious minority rights and corruption. Some even have taken up the anti-government slogans, including businesspeople in June 2018 who shouted ‘Death to the Dictator’ during three days of protestsFootnote 44 . However, the protests that have endured are focused on specific economic and occupational demands, and pushing to change the distribution of state resources. They remain fragmented, localised and uncoordinated for now.

Throughout February of the same year, women continued to peacefully protest the imposition of the hijabFootnote 45 . On 5 March, workers in a factory in Arak held a protest against unfulfilled promises on their living conditions. On 8 March, authorities detained 80 protesters after a peaceful gathering was organised on International Women’s Day. On 11 May, anti-US protests took place in Tehran following President Trump’s announcement that the US would no longer be party to the nuclear deal with Iran. Throughout early May 2018, protests also took place in the city of Kazeroon, south of Tehran, against the redrawing of council lines. On 25 June, protests broke out in the capital, shutting down the Grand Bazaar due to fears of the impact of renewed US sanctions and the fall in the value of the rial; this is a significant development as bazaaris, or the merchant class, are traditionally government supporters. In early July, protests erupted in Khorramshahr over water shortages, a phenomenon that has become too common throughout the country’s southwestern region, and over the government’s management of the water crisis. On 2 August, protests were held in multiple cities, including Tehran, Arak, Isfahan, Karaj and Shiraz over the significant increase in prices and the downward spiral in the value of the rial, which had lost nearly 80 per cent of its value since August 2017. Truckers, who had first gone on strike in May 2018, calling for a wage increase, resumed their strikes in August. In October, teachers called for national strikes and sit-ins, demanding higher pay, improved pensions and health insurance.

The discontent is not likely to fade away, especially in light of the growing pressure from US sanctions. The Islamic Republic’s ability to weather the storm will largely depend on its willingness to tackle the causes of discontent and its ability to manage the economic hardship effectively. The external threat coupled with the increasingly aggressive anti-Iranian rhetoric has the benefit of rallying Iranians around the flag. This may deflect from the underlying problems for some time, but ultimately the causes of the protests will have to be addressed.

Political infighting: The state of play

Iranian politics is notoriously dynamic, with different factions constantly competing with each other. While the Supreme Leader is the final arbiter, he is not the only decision-maker. Politics continues to be fluid. If the threat from an increasingly belligerent Trump administration has somewhat tempered the infighting, the discord has not completely dissipated and will likely resurface once the effects of renewed sanctions make themselves felt and spur further outbreaks of discontent.

Since their second electoral defeat in 2017, Iran’s hardliners have increased their efforts to discredit Rouhani and his policies. From harassing dual nationals to arresting environmentalists, much of their strategy has involved opposing the Rouhani government in a range of areas and demonstrating how powerless the President is. Hardliners have opposed the government on many issues, from the 2015 nuclear deal, which in their minds has been of little benefit to Iran and set a dangerous precedent for dialogue with the US, to the government’s continued ‘mishandling’ of the economic crisis. For example, conservative students recently penned a letter to the president asking for his resignation over his poor management of the economy and inability to lower unemploymentFootnote 46 . Calls for his resignation from the hardliner camp have continued throughout 2018, including rumours that parliament might seek to dismiss himFootnote 47 .

The Rouhani administration also has been undermined through the impeachment of and questioning by parliament of his cabinet members, as well as the dismissal of high-level officials. In July 2018, Central Bank Governor Valiollah Seif was ousted for his handling of the currency crisis. In August, parliament impeached Rouhani’s Labour Minister Ali Rabiei, and Economy Minister Masoud Karbasian. In October, the president accepted Minister of Industries, Mines and Business Mohammad Shariatmadari’s resignation, after rumours of an attempt to impeach him. President Rouhani has filled these cabinet positions with a number of unsurprising insiders, for example inviting Shariatmadari to join Cabinet again as labour minister.

The administration has also faced opposition on a number measures it has sought to take to make the Iranian economy more transparent and compliant with international norms; these include adhering to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) measures and joining the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Despite Supreme Leader Khamenei’s reticence, parliament approved a bill against the funding of terrorism in early October, thus removing Iran from FATF’s blacklistFootnote 48 .

Despite these relentless attacks, and following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018, the Rouhani administration has called for unity. In June, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned that “the enemies' goal is neither Iran's system nor Rouhani's government (…) The target is Iran. They want to destroy IranFootnote 49 ”. Rouhani echoed the sentiment a few days later, stating that his administration would not resign, and calling for unityFootnote 50 . His administration has adopted a harder line towards external enemies. In July, Rouhani threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz over US oil sanctions; while this prospect is something Iranian officials often dangle, the regime has generally demonstrated restraint regarding issuing such threats. In a rare display of solidarity, Quds Force General Soleimani published a letter praising the president and pledging support to implement his threat should it be necessaryFootnote 51 . This indicated, unsurprisingly, that the more the system is threatened from outside, the more it is likely to unify. But this unity may be short-lived and will be challenged by two new developments: the rise of a new generation of radical conservatives who are critical of the older generation for being too cautiousFootnote 52 ; and the actual impact of sanctions. If the government is not able to weather the storm, discontent and protests will continue to rise and those refusing to heed calls for unity will likely use this as an opportunity to resume their attacks on the Rouhani administration.


Today, the Islamic Republic faces a number of challenges on the domestic front. Following the wave of protests in December 2017, the system acknowledged the protestors’ demands. The regime must now capitalise on the moment of unity to forge ahead with reforms that are unpopular with certain segments of the elite. It is important, however, that the administration implement changes slowly. Should Rouhani push his agenda too aggressively, it will result in a conservative backlash and another tightening of the reins. This would ultimately make the regime more fragile because of renewed popular discontent. In other words, both too little or too much will have negative consequences for the country.

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