About a month ago, thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the street, protesting against the Rouhani presidency and its failures. Rouhani promised a wealthier country as a result of the nuclear deal. But for many Iranians, these supposed benefits have yet to materialise. Unemployment is high, with many students graduating from university only to find there are no jobs for them, only debt. Inflation also remains stubbornly high, despite the lifting of sanctions. In response to the protests, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has blamed Israel and the United States for stirring up trouble, refusing to take responsibility. President Rouhani has defended the right to protest, but encourages people to keep faith with the government and the detente with the West.
Iran has a long and proud history of dissent. After all, it was protests and strikes that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, so any government crackdown reeks of hypocrisy. In recent years, protests have been concentrated in the major cities and universities, with liberal reformists protesting against government corruption and election-rigging, most notably after Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2009. But what makes these protests is how widespread they are, both geographically and demographically. One of the largest protests took place in Mashhad, a socially conservative, working class city. They have more in common with the Arab Spring than with reformist protests insofar as they seem to be motivated more by economic deprivation than opposition to authoritarianism.
The protests perfectly illustrate the two Irans. The first is the one most talked about by Trump and the neoconservatives: Iran as an Islamic theocracy, hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, the acquisition of nuclear weapons and domination over the Middle East. A country with no freedom, and thus a perfect illustration of the evils of Islamism and its radical leftist ideological origins. The neoconservative critique of Iran is limited by American support for Saudi Arabia, which is even more authoritarian and corrupt than Iran. Rather, Iran is condemned because it is a geopolitical adversary and a threat to US-Saudi hegemony. It’s worth noting that most people affected by Trump’s travel ban are Iranian.
But just because the neoconservatives are wrong, doesn’t make the Iranian government right. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Leader. The Revolutionary Guard acts as a state within a state, controlling vast assets and commanding considerable political influence. The President, while benefiting from a popular mandate, is increasingly unable to reform against the wishes of a conservative establishment. Following the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has undergone a peculiar brand of neoliberal economic reforms, whereby tariffs and subsidies are cut, and state-owned assets are privatised. The effects of this are mixed: industry is more efficient and long-term GDP growth trends are good, but living conditions have worsened, wage increases have been eroded by inflation, and the privatisations smack of cronyism.
The other Iran is the one less talked about by Western media outlets. This is the Iran of relatively secular, reform-minded or apolitical people who simply want a better life for themselves. They do not share the regime’s obsession with opposing America and Saudi Arabia, preferring closer ties with the West. They want less money spent abroad and more invested at home. For these people, freedom and prosperity are more important than dogmatic adherence to Khomeini’s teachings or Islamist orthodoxy. This is the Iran than elected Rouhani, that wants change, albeit within the confines of Iran’s constitution. The bellicose rhetoric coming from Iranian politicians is not a reflection of what most people believe, hence the protests. The lesson of Iran’s protests is that moderates in both Iran and the West must fight to strengthen ties between the two, and oppose the extreme conservatives who wish a Huntingdon-style clash of civilisations to occur. The values of the West and Iran may be distinct, but they are not irreconcilable.