Protests in Iran: Why? What Impact? How
Should the U.S. Respond?
Michael Singh, Patrick Clawson, Michael
Eisenstadt, and Hanin Ghaddar
The Washington Institute
January 8, 2018
On January 4, Patrick Clawson,
Michael Eisenstadt, and Hanin Ghaddar addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington
Institute. Clawson is the Institute's Morningstar Senior Fellow and director of
research. Eisenstadt is the Institute's Kahn Fellow and director of its Military
and Security Studies Program. Ghaddar is the Institute's Friedmann Visiting
Fellow and a veteran Lebanese journalist and researcher. The forum was moderated
by Michael Singh, the Institute's Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and managing director.
The following is a rapporteur's summary of their remarks. Mehdi Khalaji was also
scheduled to participate via teleconference but was unable to complete his
presentation due to unforeseen technical problems.
upcoming U.S. policy decisions on Iran, including sanctions waivers,
decertification of the nuclear deal, and congressional efforts to amend the Iran
Nuclear Agreement Review Act, have been colored by what is happening inside
Iran. So far, the Trump administration has shown support for the protestors
through the president's Twitter feed and other statements by U.S. officials. If
more sanctions are levied on Iran for human rights abuses, they would inevitably
play into imminent decisions regarding Iran-related legislation that is up for
United States would like to see the international community express some joint
sentiment about the protestors and galvanize wider support for them, but
European responses have been lackluster. Perhaps that is because EU states have
a tremendous amount of financial, political, and diplomatic capital invested in
the nuclear deal. The Europeans have expressed much more interest in dialogue
with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
indicators imply that Iran's economy is in pretty good shape: its GDP will grow
more this year than the U.S. GDP; its budget deficit will be smaller relative to
the economy's size than America's; and it is running a healthy current account
surplus in its international trade. Yet the situation for most of the Iranian
population is quite poor. The country's annual survey of living standards shows
that relevant markers are still more than 10 percent worse than they were a
decade ago. Unemployment and inflation are rising, with price increases
concentrated among staples such as bread, which recently underwent its first
increase in three years, up 15 percent.
for how the economic situation may be affecting the protests, two important
issues stand out. The first is the cost of Iran's destabilizing activities
abroad. In absolute numbers, the regime's spending in this regard seems
relatively inexpensive, but it is significant compared to the size of the
economy. U.S. officials have claimed that the regime spends around $7 billion
per year on such activities, mostly to prop up the Syrian regime and fund
various terrorist groups; they also point out expenditures of up to $2 billion
on missile and nuclear activities. Even if the actual amount of foreign
expenditures is only half of the U.S. claim, $4 billion dollars is roughly 1
percent of Iran's GDP. For perspective, 1 percent of the U.S. GDP is $180
billion. Put another way, $4 billion is more than Iran's planned social subsidy
cuts for 2018, which will affect 30 million Iranians. The indirect costs of
regional adventurism are even higher; Iran's 2018 budget allots $12 billion for
military expenditures, much of which would not be needed if the regime were less
Iran's banking system is tottering. According to President Rouhani's December 10
budget speech, six "fraudulent institutions" now hold about 25% of the
money market. Many of these credit institutions are connected to the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps or prominent clerics. They have been paying high
deposit rates and charging outrageous interest rates on loans, some as high as
35 percent. Several of these institutions failed last November, and there is no
system of deposit insurance in Iran. As Rouhani warned in December, up to four
million Iranians face "total ruin of their lives" from the financial
crisis, and the banks are not in much better shape than the credit institutions.
the urgency, Tehran has spent two years dithering on the matter. This is not
because the situation is somehow unsolvable; any IMF economist could suggest a
number of obvious reforms to prevent a bank collapse, and countries such as
Cyprus and Iceland have survived much worse financial crises. Yet the partisan
deadlock in Iran is worse than Washington's and has prevented leaders from
making the necessary decisions.
factors could be significant as well. Protest movements are generally driven by
the young; scholars note that revolutions are most likely to occur in places
where the median age is under twenty-six. Iran's population is aging; its median
age of thirty-one is higher than Israel's and ten years older than Iraq's.
said, the Islamic Republic is an ideological regime, and the protests show that
the hearts and minds of the people may have turned away from revolutionary
ideology. Many Iranian commentators note that the country now resembles Leonid
Brezhnev's Soviet Union—the people are just going through the ideological
motions without conviction. Tellingly, the regime took a full week to mobilize
counter-protests, which is a long time compared to past episodes. This suggests
that the leadership was not sure it could pull off pro-regime demonstrations.
regime has been very effective at closing down information channels coming out
of Iran, making it difficult to assess what is truly going on. Yet the Islamic
Republic's history provides a useful framework for understanding the protests.
most important, the regime's founders are revolutionaries, and there is nothing
they fear more than a counterrevolution. Iran's current leaders drew a number of
lessons from their revolution against the shah and from past efforts to suppress
first is the need for strong, decisive leadership. The shah's weakness and
indecision contributed to the revolution's success. This is part of the reason
why the Islamic Republic has been so quick to suppress previous protests.
the security forces must be properly
trained, equipped, and employed, with clear guidance and strong political
support. The regime has spent a lot of money on its riot forces, though it is
unclear how disciplined and well-trained they are.
morale and cohesion must be preserved within the security forces. Yet both of
these elements are affected by the social makeup of individual units, as well as
the social and class cleavages present in Iranian society. This is a real
problem amid the current protests because many security personnel are reportedly
drawn from the country's lower and lower-middle classes and its smaller cities
same people they are being asked to suppress.
regime's method of countering past protests consisted of four pillars: avoiding
large-scale use of lethal force; emphasizing face-to-face melees to intimidate
the more faint-hearted oppositionists; targeting key opposition leaders with
indefinite house arrest and isolation; and breaking the morale and spirit of
protestors through televised confessions, torture, sexual humiliation, and rapid
release of detainees so that they could tell others about their brutal
treatment. Yet if authorities overreach or miscalculate during the current
uprising, they could escalate the violence.
for the regime's activities abroad, recent events should not affect Iran's
foreign deployments in the short term, since they involve only a small number of
specialized units such as the Qods Force. In the long term, however, the
protests could affect force-structure
decisions for years to come, with more resources allocated to internal
forward, U.S. officials should use restrained language about the uprising.
Washington needs to express support for the protestors, but full-throated
declarations could deter some Iranians from joining the demonstrations and would
make the United States look ineffectual if the uprising is suppressed. U.S.
officials should also keep the focus on the regime—if Washington reimposes
nuclear-related sanctions, it could enable Iranian leaders to redirect the
people's economic frustrations toward the United States.
discontent with the Iranian regime's regional activities is not limited to Iran.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that leads most of these activities, faces
growing challenges within its own constituency. In fact, the signs of discontent
in Lebanon are very similar to those seen in Iran.
before Iran's protests broke out, Lebanese Shia anger toward Hezbollah seemed to
increase drastically because of the group's involvement in the Syria war, which
has resulted in more dead Lebanese fighters than all of its past conflicts
war has also massively eroded the economic situation of Hezbollah's domestic
constituency. Its payroll is now restricted to soldiers and their families; as a
result, many of its troops are essentially fighting for money rather than
ideology. The preferential payments have also created class and cultural
divisions that are fostering real tension between fighters and Shia civilians.
Even as militia members benefit from the war, the group has made serious cuts in
its social service networks to fund the increased military activity. Today, a
young Shia has to risk his life in order to benefit from Hezbollah's resources.
openly expressed through protests last October in Dahiya, a Hezbollah
stronghold in the suburbs of Beirut, with demonstrators in the district's
poorest neighborhood chanting slogans against Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The marches were contained and the protestors were forced to apologize on
camera, but the underlying discontent remains unaddressed.
signs of discontent were obvious in the most recent municipal elections, in
which many Shia voted against Hezbollah and Amal candidates. For example, 40
percent of voters in Baalbek—Hezbollah's stronghold in the Beqa
Valley—supported anti-Hezbollah candidates.
current economic downturn looks to worsen in the coming year, so it would not be
surprising if more protests erupt, especially if Iran's uprising reverberates
among Lebanese Shia. Any sign of weakness could push the people to reconsider
Iran and Hezbollah's supremacy in the region—which could in turn push
Lebanon's political forces to reconsider their compromises with Hezbollah.