Celebration and Unrest: The Two Sides to a Divided Iran
(Photo: Mohammad Jafari, Wikimedia Commons)
On February 11, a mass of citizens lined the streets of Iran in order to collectively celebrate the 40th year anniversary of the 1979 Iran Revolution. The 1979 revolution marked the end of the Iranian monarchy and the demise of the Persian empire, giving birth to the current Islamic Republic of Iran. The crowd – which ranged anywhere from the hundreds of thousands to the millions – united as they displayed their support for the foundational principles of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian state as a whole. However, these celebrations, organised and led by the state, were also intended to play a larger role in Iranian domestic affairs, as the government works to unite a starkly divided society against a common enemy: outsiders. The long-term success of this strategy remains to be seen as new challenges to the Iranian state continue to arise.
Societal Divisions and Economic Decline
Despite the perceived unity displayed on the 11th, Iran still remains divided, as civil unrest permeates throughout society. The divide largely exists between Islamic hardliners, who support the clerical rule in Iran, and the reformists, who want improved economic management, increased government transparency, and a relaxation of strict Islamic rules. This unrest came to the surface in December 2017 in the form of nationwide protests which continued sporadically for months. The Washington Post described these waves of unrest as “the largest outpouring of government opposition since the volatile 2009 presidential elections”, presented as “an open rebellion against Iran’s Islamic leadership itself”.
Although the civil unrest of the past year has remained relatively unorganised, unable to generate enough pressure to incite any form of regime change, the possibility of revitalised and strengthened protests in the future remains a real threat to the strength of the Iranian government. At the very least, the protests highlighted the growing dissent in Iranian society as it continues to grapple with a severely declining economy and a rapid increase in the price of basic food items.
The government has acknowledged the bleak outlook of Iran’s economy, with the combination of economic mismanagement and increased U.S. economic sanctions (following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal) beginning to bite. Recently, the Islamic Republic’s President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran is facing “the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past 40 years”, aware that the associated economic decline will continue to fuel dissent throughout the lower and middle class. Furthermore, the recent souring of Iran-EU relations – due to Iran’s growing satellite and ballistic missile programs – may test the current economic relief being provided by the EU. Regardless, the immediate future of Iran, socially and economically, appears bleak.
“Death to America”
This dissent, which has continued to build over the past year, was no doubt in the forefront of the minds of Iranian leaders amidst the celebrations on February 11. In the past, these state-organised protests have regularly been used to foster and highlight ongoing support of the Iranian people towards the government, with the 40th anniversary remaining consistent to this theme. However, the Rouhani government expanded upon this nationalistic initiative by demonising the efforts of outside forces and their “evil objectives,” in an attempt to shift the blame for Iran’s social unrest and economic decline onto outside forces. Chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” echoed across Iran – from loudspeakers and citizens alike – as flags burned and anti-American and anti-Israeli banners lined the streets. The central theme of the celebrations was overwhelmingly clear, with the Rouhani government appealing to a nationalistic drive across society in a bid to unite Iranian society against its foes. Although anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment is in no way new to Iran, the targeted nature of this propaganda in the wake of growing dissent was clearly a tool used to reaffirm support in the Rouhani government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
During the celebrations Rouhani further fostered this theme claiming that Iran “will not let America become victorious. Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties but we will overcome the problems by helping each other”. Unification of society appears to be one of the government’s top priorities in the face of a vastly uncertain future. In fact, in the weeks prior to the anniversary, Rouhani stressed that “[t]oday our problems are primarily because of pressure from America and its followers. And the dutiful government and Islamic system should not be blamed”.
It remains to be seen if this deflection of blame from the government will be successful in the long-term in settling the civil unrest still prevalent across Iran. However, in the short-term, a militant attack in southeast Iran, two days following the 40th anniversary, has reignited conflict directed at the Islamic Republic. A suicide bomber targeted an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps bus, killing at least 27 Corps members. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is an elite military force which serves as the sword and shield of the Islamic Supreme Leader, acting as a reflection of the leader itself. The Sunni militant group, Jaish al Adl, has claimed responsibility for the attack, citing that they seek greater human rights and improved living conditions for the Baluchis ethnic minority. This attack further reflects the continued unrest that has filtered across Iran. Continuing with their strategy from the 40th anniversary celebrations, the Rouhani government has blamed the U.S. and its regional supporters for the attack, asserting that “[t]he crime will remain as a ‘dirty stain’ in the black record of the main supporters of terrorism in the White House, Tel Aviv and their regional agents”. Such statements epitomise the continued efforts of the government to centralise blame for domestic social division and unrest onto outside forces.
The efforts of the Iranian government throughout the 40th anniversary celebrations and their response to the militant attack highlight the strategy of the Rouhani administration to unite Iranian society against outsider interference. Whether or not this tactic of deflection will prove successful in mustering public support in defence of the current administration remains to be seen, especially as ongoing economic decline continues to agonise the lower and middle classes. Iran, which has remained one of the most stable countries in the Middle East region in recent times, appears to be facing a turbulent future, with uncertainty and unrest at the heart of the problem.
Brodie McLaughlin is a student of International relations, with interests in political reform, foreign affairs, international development, and conflict resolution. He recently completed a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) and is currently completing his honours year.