Finally, the poor in the remote regions of the country are also angered by Rouhani's government. According to official estimates, some ten million of the country's 83 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and that in a country that could potentially be very wealthy. Exacerbating the situation is a climate catastrophe, the consequences of which are already plain to see: water shortages and drought in villages and small towns are part of the everyday life of many Iranians, just like the unprecedented air pollution in the cities that affects millions of people.
Rouhani's government has so far proven itself incapable of solving any of these problems. When a major earthquake shook the province of Kurdistan five weeks ago, chaos reigned and all help came too late. In fact, the state seemed to be virtually absent during the first few days after the disaster.
"This is why Rouhani has more to fear from the pressure from abroad than from that in the Iranian provinces. After all, the success of his domestic policies depends on a normalisation of relations between Iran and the outside world. But his foreign policy, in particular those policies that relate to the region, is determined chiefly by his rivals: the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards as well as the mafia-like forces allied with them," writes Ali Sadrzadeh. Pictured here: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani
Rouhani's political formulas are ineffective in the face of the mounting problems he must tackle. Both his voters and his opponents have written off his government as incapable. For the hardliners, this all-encompassing discontent seemed to present an invaluable asset; they thought it might help bring down the hated Rouhani government.
After weeks of small rallies in various towns and cities, the plan was to send the clearest possible signal last Thursday from Mashhad, the hometown of Rouhani's rival. Originally, several hundred people were to gather outside the town hall to demonstrate against Rouhani. But this time, the hardliners' calculation went badly wrong.
Out of control
The protests boomeranged; a state crisis ensued. Suddenly, not only hundreds but thousands of people showed up and were undoubtedly extremely dissatisfied, not only with the government under Rouhani but with the Islamic Republic as a whole. And with lightning speed, numerous slogans against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei began to spread through the social networks. The crowd chanted: "Let go of Syria, think of us!", "Down with the dictator!" and "Down with Khamenei!".
One hour after the end of the demonstration, Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri went before the press to warn the political rivals in Mashhad: "You may call for demonstrations, but you will not be able to control them in the end." He would turn out to be right. Mashhad was just the beginning and a signal for the rest of the country to follow suit. Since then, people have taken to the streets daily in dozens of towns and cities in all provinces of Iran, chanting against the theocracy. They are the "disenfranchised", the mass grassroots that once supported the Islamic revolution.
What's more, the protests are becoming increasingly violent. According to official sources, a dozen people had been killed by Monday evening and several hundred arrested. Until that point, all were victims of the police, which is under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. For the moment, the revolutionary guards are staying in their barracks, said a Pasdaran spokesman on Monday evening.
Although the paramilitary militias (the Basij) had to be deployed here and there, the time for the guards to intervene had not yet come, he added. But it will come should the unrest assume dimensions that jeopardise the system.
Moreover, the guards will not hesitate to use brutal means to put down the uprising, as they demonstrated during the so-called "Green Revolution" nine years ago. However, there is in fact another reason for their current restraint: like all hardliners, they initially condoned the limited demonstrations – as long as they were directed against President Rouhani. In recent weeks, their press mouthpieces reported daily on the economic plight of the people and showed understanding for the small and large rallies organised by pensioners, the jobless and those who had been cheated out of their savings.
The anti-Iran coalition rejoices
The time and circumstances in which all of this is happening could not be more dangerous. Governments in other countries – in particular the US Administration – are keeping a close eye on what is happening in Iran. "The first thing President Trump sent out into the world today was a tweet about the unrest in Iran," said a reporter from BBC Persian on Sunday evening. Nearly all senior American politicians are expressing their views almost hourly on the events in Iran. On Tuesday morning, the first working day of the year, the US Vice-President tweeted that the President and he would not "repeat the shameful mistake of our past when others stood by and ignored the heroic resistance of the Iranian people as they fought against their brutal regime."
This is why Rouhani has more to fear from the pressure from abroad than from that in the Iranian provinces. After all, the success of his domestic policies depends on a normalisation of relations between Iran and the outside world. But his foreign policy, in particular those policies that relate to the region, is determined chiefly by his rivals: the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards as well as the mafia-like forces allied with them. It is namely the activities of the guards in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, that are threatening the survival not only of Rouhani but of the whole system. A powerful coalition consisting of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA is doing everything in its power to push Iran back out of those countries.
Meanwhile, Internet access for Iranians has been virtually blocked since Sunday. President Trump promptly responded via Twitter, saying that "Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!"
In a normal year, millions of Muslims flock to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage. But with COVID-19 still a global threat, only a few thousand have been allowed to make the journey this year, and those that were allowed to travel, have to abide by a set of strict rules.