The demonstrations that took Iran and the world by surprise remain undefined, leaderless and unprecedented in the mix of messages and geographical locations. Yet they are extremely significant, as they portray the depth of anger at the lack of economic and political progress in the Islamic republic 39 years on.
President Hassan Rouhani has taken four courageous steps over the past two years all of which have infuriated the hardliners: Against all odds he completed the Iran nuclear deal; stood up directly to the hardliners siding instead with the reformists; took the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and implemented fiscal restraints policy; and finally took steps to tackle high-level corruption.
Yet, none of these steps have reached fruition and, as such, they have caused immense public resentment and hardship.
Despite that, the thrust of the political slogans at the protests were not directed at Rouhani. Initially aimed against high prices, the anti-government protests quickly turned against the regime as a whole and in an unprecedented level against the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Last Saturday, December 30, was the national day of “Alliance with the Supreme Leader”. Instead, the day turned into one of burning the flag of the Islamic republic and tearing photos of Ayatollah Khamenei. Much anger was expressed at the clerical establishment, its repressive measures at home and its political and financial focus on Syria, Iraq and Palestine, rather than on the needs of the Iranians.
Many blame the hardliners for starting the protests in Mashhad. And some hardline clerics were reportedly summoned to the National Security Council and reprimanded.
Mashhad is the stronghold of Rouhani’s hardline rival, Ebrahim Raissi, who was the preferred candidate of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). He is the chief custodian of the powerful religious foundation and as such holds the largest pot of public funds. Together with his ultra-hardline father-in-law, he is accused of having turned Mashhad into a key location for opposing Rouhani and his policies.
Mashhad was also at the centre of the high-profile fraud case of . The $35bn fraud case which revealed unprecedented corruption at the highest levels dating back to the hardline government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The chief executive of the firm was jailed in 2016. Investors shares dropped drastically in value and there was no state-owned enterprise control. Since then investors have regularly protested in Mashhad and Tehran.
The surprise came only when the protests spread to some 70 more remote towns and provincial cities where police stations and security forces were directly targeted.
The slogans became overtly anti-establishment: “Death to the Khamenei,” “Down with the dictator,” “Have shame, you mullah,” “I don’t want an Islamic republic,” and “O Shah, rest in peace,” or “Let go of Palestine, not Gaza, not Lebanon, I’d give my life [only] for Iran”.
On January 5, the hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami hit back before Friday prayers in Tehran:
“The slogans chanted on behalf of Trump and Netanyahu in the recent riots that said Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon are the voices of outsiders, and should be stifled”.
IRGC chief Mohammad-Ali Jaffari also “the US, Zionists and Al Saud” for acts of “sabotage and blasts”.
Whoever started the protests or fanned its flames with whatever ulterior motive, one thing is clear that the public outcry against Islamic republic's repressive methods and the economic malaise cannot be written off as a mere conspiracy, or whitewashed with mass pro-regime demonstrations.
This showed the regime’s nervous disposition after of joint efforts by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia for exerting pressure on Iran. And it was exasperated when both the US president, Donald Trump, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, praised “the brave demonstrators”.
Scepticism increased when some prominent Iranian figures such as the former crown prince, , and the Nobel laureate asked the US to increase pressure on Iran. Many wondered whether there was a foreign ulterior motive to fan the flame of the protests.
Whoever started the protests or fanned its flames with whatever ulterior motive, one thing is clear that the public outcry against Islamic republic’s repressive methods and the economic malaise cannot be written off as a mere conspiracy, or whitewashed with mass pro-regime demonstrations.
Iranians are frustrated by the inability of the establishment to create any meaningful change whether at the economic or political level. This was the third time Ayatollah Khamenei was hearing the call for his downfall and it was stronger than 2009 and 2013.
And the establishment was unusually apprehensive. IRGC said it had not been called to take action. Its involvement was very limited. The Supreme Leader did not speak for five days. The hardline Kayhan newspaper acknowledged: “the nation has risen in protest,” and the president promised to create more jobs and improve the credit oversight.
The question now is whether Rouhani can use the protests to his benefit and convince the supreme leader of the need to implement the “major economic corrective surgery” to which he referred to in his speech. This may be difficult while US sanctions hover over Iran’s economy. The hardliners are likely to put all the blame on the president and push for the need to project a more military image of Iran to the world.
Whatever the outcome, a new benchmark has now been set for future protests and some past taboos have been broken. They should be taken seriously.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.