Protests in Iran
An own-goal for the hardliners

The blaze of popular wrath that has been ignited in Iran's provinces has long since begun to consume the cities as well. Initially intended by hardliners as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with President Rouhani, the demonstrations are now directed at the system as a whole. By Ali Sadrzadeh

What's going on in Iran? The latest wave of social unrest began in the provinces, causing some people to say it is therefore limited, unpredictable, aimless and ultimately also dangerous. Others, however, contend that the uprising is authentic, original and therefore full of future promise.

The intellectual debate about the nature of the struggle that has been raging for days in the streets of Iranian towns and cities continues unabated, just like the protests themselves. What is going on in the theocracy? Who is protesting against whom? And what will happen next?

What we do know for sure is that the political earthquake currently rocking Iran is unprecedented. It is a test of strength that poses a huge challenge to the Islamic Republic, now in its fortieth year. Some people see in the protests a prelude of things to come: a power struggle over the legacy of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei. It is an initial struggle that those currently in power are likely to win, because only they have the military wherewithal and are prepared to exercise the requisite brutality.

The people in the provinces and the kingmaker

The protest movement got underway in the provinces, in the city of Mashhad in north-western Iran, nearly a thousand kilometres away from the capital, Tehran. It all started with an appeal posted by hardliners in the social networks. They called for a demonstration outside Mashhad's town hall against Rouhani's economic policies: against the hike in petrol prices, cuts in social spending, and rising prices for eggs and poultry. The protest movement had the blessing of the most powerful man in the province – at least at first.

Protests against Ayatollah Khamenei and the country's political leaders (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo)
Not the Green Revolution reloaded: it would appear that in contrast to the demonstrations of 2009, the current wave of demonstrations in Iran is less about democracy and civil rights than about high prices, unemployment and social injustice. Another difference is that this movement does not have any clear leaders. Thus far, most reformers have avoided aligning themselves with the protesters. Pictured here: people protest against Ayatollah Khamenei and the country's political leaders

His name is Ayatollah Alam Al Hoda, Friday prayer leader in the holy city of Mashhad and representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the province of Khorassan. Some call the 73-year-old ayatollah not only the king of the province but also the kingmaker for the entire country. His son-in-law Ebrahim Raisi was Rouhani's rival in the presidential election five months ago. Neither father-in-law nor son-in-law ever really got over Raisi's defeat, nor did the other hardliners in Iran, chief among them their supreme leader.

Protest rallies large and small have been held across the country for several weeks. Some were called by workers who have not received wages for months, others by pensioners who have nothing left to live on, some by the poor but also by rich citizens who have been robbed of all their savings by sham banks.

What do all the protests have in common? They are all aimed at Rouhani's government. Until now, the demonstrations have been tolerated and even praised by the newspapers and on websites, particularly those allied with the hardliners. But it is not just the hardliners who are trying to topple Rouhani. For his supporters too, the months since his re-election have brought nothing but disappointment and disillusionment. The widespread accusation is that he has not been able to achieve any of the things he promised. What's more, Rouhani's cabinet includes neither a single woman nor a Sunni; instead, his ministers were forced on him by the hardliners. In the social networks as well, people have long since given up on Rouhani – if the laments of disappointed voters that have been multiplying for weeks under the hashtag "I regret" are anything to go by.

More on this topic