Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s attack on “fraudulent institutions” controlled by hard-line clerics in a speech to parliament Dec. 10 has provoked a backlash against him by both conservative political opponents and street protesters fed up with the poor state of governance and the economy.
Narges Bajoghli reports, “The protests that began on Dec. 28 in Mashhad were a response to Rouhani from hard-liners for his remarks on the budget as well as his other attempts to curtail hard-line forces. Much of the analysis on the reasons behind the sudden outpouring of protests points to its origin in hard-liners' attempts to organize anti-Rouhani rallies in the lead-up to the annual pro-regime 9 Dey rally, established by the supreme leader in 2009 to celebrate the suppression of the Green Movement. Indeed, Mashhad is notably home to two of Rouhani’s main rivals in the 2017 presidential elections, Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The intent was for the protests to culminate in a large 9 Dey rally [Dec. 30], but despite the hard-liners’ intentions, once people went into the streets, they eventually began to chant slogans against the supreme leader and the regime as a whole.”
The demonstrations have come as seemingly “independent” television stations linked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to place Khamenei above the widespread frustration with Iran’s dismal economy, despite the sanctions relief offered by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in 2015.
These pro-Khamenei TV producers, according to Bajoghli, “quickly realized that they might once again lose control of the narrative if it continued in the direction it appeared to be headed. Regime production studios have thus begun to create videos that highlight economic anxieties and attack Rouhani’s handling of the government. These slick new productions are meant to look critical, but in the end, they reinforce a belief in the virtues and the leadership of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Avant TV is only the latest example of the ways in which factionalism within the Islamic Republic and opposition to the regime play out in the media landscape.”
Saeid Jafari reports, “As protests continue in various Iranian cities, Reformists are asking people to show restraint in expressing their discontent. The protests, originally economic in nature and later expanded to include other grievances, have not been welcomed by Reformists inside Iran."
“These reactions,” Jafari writes, “prompted some online users, especially those outside of Iran, to criticize the Reformists and call them opportunistic and power-hungry individuals who want to stay in power no matter what. However, the truth is that the Reformists’ ideology is in opposition to regime change and radical shifts. Just as the Reformists were not looking to overthrow the government following the disputed 2009 presidential elections and were only demanding the revocation of the election results, they are not looking for sudden and radical solutions today and instead prefer to solve challenges through gradual reform.”
Mohammad Ali Shabani writes that there is still a chance for Rouhani to capitalize on the protests to advance his reform agenda. “Rather than allowing the protests to become a tool for his domestic opponents and an opportunity for radicals to reassert their relevance,” Shabani writes, “Rouhani must engage with the supreme leader to convince him of the need to tackle unaccountable centers of power and money. The president fired an important salvo in this game when he published details of budget allocations and through his recent revelations about the undue influence of opaque actors on financial markets. In the view of some, that very salvo is what helped mobilize the current protests. But in the long run, if the opportunity before him is seized, Rouhani could have in his hands his perhaps greatest chance to confront the vested interests that are preventing his agenda for reform.”
The demonstrations have not had an impact on Iran’s regional agenda or influence. “The protests will not affect the situation in Iraq and will not make any major change in the near future because of the ongoing Iranian influence in Iraq through different mechanisms,” writes Ali Mamouri. “However, what is happening in Iran will undermine the Iranian position and that of its allies in Iraq in the long run. … One ought to mention that the recent protests blemished the bright image of Iran as a developed, ever-growing and powerful state in the eyes of Iraqi Shiites. The protests showed the people’s anger and discontent due to poverty, deprivation and resentment toward the Iranian intervention in the region at the expense of the well-being of Iranians.”
In Turkey, Mustafa Akyol writes, “Many Turks chose to interpret the events based less on facts and more on their own ideological blueprints. And as usual, for the government and its supporters, this ideological blueprint involves something nefarious: an American-Zionist conspiracy to destabilize Iran.”
He adds, “Turkey’s pro-government commentators seemed so certain about their interpretation of events in Iran that one of them criticized Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for being too naive to see the conspiracy.”
Prior to the demonstrations, Iran had given priority to rebuilding its ties with Hamas via Hezbollah. Ali Hashem reports, “Since the Syrian uprising, Iran and Hezbollah shifted priorities for what they saw as the existential threat they were facing in Syria, and later in Iraq. This came amid a rift with Hamas on their polar positions over the regime in Syria, which the movement did not support. This didn’t mean halting all the support to the movement and other allied movements, such as Islamic Jihad, but support was limited in the case of Hamas to its military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which later played a main role in bridging the gaps between the two sides. The brigades lobbied for change in Hamas leadership, and pressured the Iranian side to halt the media campaigns launched by allied outlets.”
He continues, “In fact, Hezbollah is openly supporting a third “intifada” in Palestine, which would lead to mounting pressure on Israel and a new challenge and threat to Netanyahu’s government. To the group, Israel had in recent years been dealing with minimum threats, which gave it the chance to take advantage of the Palestinians, and even of Hezbollah itself. Israel launched airstrikes in Syria on targets affiliated with the group, whose participation in the Syrian war limited its options to respond, hence providing Israel with the luxury of setting its rules of the game in Syria.”
“Now that the war in Syria is no longer the main challenge for the resistance axis, Hezbollah is looking forward to re-emerging as a main player inside the Palestinian territories and creating new rules of engagement,” Hashem adds. “Thus, it would revive its priority of resisting Israel, after more than five years in the role of a nonstate regional player with the mandate of keeping defiant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, besides fighting or assisting in the fight against radical Sunni movements in both Syria and Iraq.”
He concludes, “In this regard, Hezbollah will have to invest on the political and media levels to achieve its goal. Besides, the group’s rhetoric is probably going to change to emphasize Islamic unity, after it was dominated in previous years by politically driven sectarian incitements, given the nature of the battle in Syria. … Yet this isn't all, as the axis is anticipating that Israel will launch a war on Hezbollah once the Syrian war ends. On several occasions, Nasrallah has discussed a strategy for a different path of confrontation: He wants to make use of all the groups that fought with the axis in Syria. This means he wants to engage Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani fighters with the Lebanese in the expected war.”