Iranian protests continue and are shaking the unity of the conservative camp

Political, economic and social unrest is worrying the mullahs’ regime.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Segall
Michael Segall
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.

In the year since the electoral triumph of Ebrahim Raisi—the most conservative president in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran and mentioned as the leading candidate to succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—Iran has been awash in protests by teachers, factory workers, pensioners, traditional bazaar merchants, drivers and professional unions. Meanwhile, the country is suffering a spate of repeated security-intelligence humiliations within its territory that further undermine the resilient prestige the regime is trying to project. The collapse on May 23, 2022 of a civilian building in Abadan, in which 40 people died, has also dented the regime’s image and added to the anger over the neglect of the country’s infrastructure.

A severe recession, deepened by the subsidy-reform plan that Raisi is steering and the ongoing standstill in the nuclear talks, have brought Iran to one of the gravest crises in its history. After Raisi lost the 2017 elections to Hassan Rouhani, he quipped that the economic situation could have been a lot better if he had been elected and the American dollar had not risen in value to 50,000 rials. Now, one year into his tenure, for the first time in Iran’s history, the value of the American dollar stands at 330,000 rials. As a result, the average monthly income of a senior government official or a veteran high school teacher, which stood several months ago at about $250, has fallen to less than $170.

The regime, facing empty coffers while the Central Bank prints paper money without backing, still hopes to refill its coffers if the Vienna nuclear talks succeed and at least some of the country’s funds frozen abroad are unblocked. Meanwhile, the regime is performing an economic “emergency operation,” removing subsidies from flour and stopping the allocation of foreign currency to citizens at a discounted rate to help them buy essential products. With the lifting of subsidies for basic commodities, not only have the prices of all household necessities risen many times over, but the costs of all other essential and non-essential services have at least doubled or tripled. Senior Iranian officials admit that tens of millions of middle-class families are now under the poverty line or even the absolute poverty line.

The Iranian media recognizes that millions of families can no longer allow themselves to buy even a kilogram or half-kilogram of red meat per month. Many Iranians no longer remember when they last took a family trip to another city or country—or the last time they ate fruit.

Although the regime tries to portray the demonstrations as economic rather than political, many of the protesters’ slogans—heard across the different sectors—are directed at the regime itself and its senior officials. Since the dollar crossed the 330,000 rial mark, thousands of market vendors in Tehran and other large and small cities have closed their shops and preferred to hold demonstrations, voicing harsh slogans against senior regime officials, including Khamenei. These merchants say they can no longer buy goods at the foreign-currency prices and ask if anyone could anyone buy products whose prices have spiked tenfold. Shop owners also vehemently oppose the dramatic tax increase that the Raisi government wants to impose on them to bolster its revenues.

Meanwhile, the past months have seen demonstrations across Iran by tens of thousands of teachers, Education Ministry employees and pensioners of various institutions. Whereas the government was supposed to raise the teachers’ and pensioners’ income by 57% to somewhat increase their purchasing power, in the end it raised salaries by only 10%. The Coordinating Council of the Teachers’ Organizations called on the teachers, both still employed and retired, to demonstrate across the country and demanded the release of their colleagues. Last month, four teachers were detained ahead of demonstrations held on May Day, which coincided with Teachers’ Day in Iran. In response, the Coordinating Council called on teachers across Iran to hold protests on June 16, and also urged the International Labor Organization (ILO) to expel Iran.

Since June 16, protests have been held in a broad cross-section of at least 40 cities, including Yasuj, Sanandaj, Sari, Ahvaz, Isfahan, Karaj, Khorramabad, Kashmar, Bandar Abbas, Ardabi and others. Internal security forces, some on motorcycles, were deployed in front of the parliament building to deny the demonstrating teachers access to it. Anti-riot police are using anti-riot equipment and spraying demonstrators with paint to identify them later, and state-run media echoed security officials, claiming that some of the teachers’ protest leaders are “spies” linked to France and other foreign countries.

The demonstrators, for their part, are making extensive use of social media to spread their protest. Among other things, demonstrators shouted, “Both the government and the Majlis [parliament] are lying to the people!” and “We prefer death over humiliation!” They slammed Raisi for his “lies and unfulfilled promises.”

Last week, the Tehran-based newspaper Etemad, which is critical of the president’s policy, gave a detailed report on how, amid the appalling rise in food prices, not only have hospitals and centers for the disabled and the elderly stopped providing daily hot meals, but military camps and bases have done so as well. Soldiers and other military personnel and permanent staff go through the day without a hot meal. Official sources said the situation is affecting the army and deteriorating its capabilities. The crash of an F-14 fighter jet in Isfahan on June 18 was mentioned in this context, and it was claimed that behind the spate of military aircraft crashes are shortages of spare parts and a lack of funding from the cash-strapped government.

Alongside the dire economic straits of the Iranian people, the security forces are cracking down, even against elderly pensioners. Iranian commentators say the country’s intelligence and security apparatuses are well aware that if the demonstrations, even those by elderly pensioners, continue, the regime’s prestige will suffer, and they do not want these rallies to spread further.

Writers, poets, artists and those involved in even minor political activity are feeling the brunt of the repression. Recently, dozens of artists and filmmakers, including women, were jailed by the regime. The security forces are also spreading an atmosphere of fear in the universities, a focal point of protest in the past, so that students will not start to rail against the miserable, ever-worsening political, economic and social state of affairs.

Khamenei Warns of the Monarchists’ Return

As the demonstrations continue, Khamenei openly warned in a speech that if the “loyalists of the regime” do not show enough responsibility, it could not be ruled out that the Pahlavi dynasty would return to Iran. Khamenei’s speech came only one day after an address by Prince Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran, that was broadcast from Washington in unprecedented fashion on all major U.S. and European Persian-language media to tens of millions of viewers in Iran. The Shah’s son expressed confidence that “The current regime in Iran will be gone one day; even the USSR with so many nuclear warheads was toppled.” He predicted that the regime “which already cannot provide daily bread to the citizens, will be unable to continue.”

The 60-year-old Pahlavi detailed the stages of a plan to overthrow the regime and stressed the need for unity. He called for ramping up the protests both within and outside of Iran, but said he himself had never dreamed of returning to the throne. When the Islamic Republic of Iran disappears from the arena, he said, Iranians will have to elect the kind of government they want, and if it is a republican government, he will support that as well.

It is not clear how much support Pahlavi has in Iran, though in some of the demonstrations there were calls for him to return. The slogan “Reza Shah Rohat Shad” (“Your soul, Reza Shah, rest in peace and joy”) was voiced at some of the rallies. But the opposition to the Iranian regime, both within and outside of Iran, remains divided, and there is no single agreed-upon figure to lead it.

Khamenei warned in his speech that “as in the French Revolution,” after which the Bourbon dynasty eventually returned, “if the supporters of the revolution are not diligent and do not show responsibility, all the foundations of our present government may be in danger.” He called the Pahlavi dynasty “reactionaries who are loyal to the West and court it.”

Based on several unconfirmed reports, in the recent demonstrations, the security and law-enforcement arms apparently defied their commanders’ orders and did not crack down very hard on demonstrators. Their families are also suffering from the economic woes, and the regime has stopped granting them special economic privileges. Prince Pahlavi asserted that these forces are part of the future Iran and should avoid siding with the cruel regime.

Khamenei’s PR Effort

The Iranian regime is trying to boost Khamenei’s status in an original way by circulating a song called “Salute Commander [Qassem Soleimani].” Apart from inside Iran, this song is being disseminated and recorded by children of regime supporters in other countries, including Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and more.

Large budgets were devoted to producing and distributing the clip. State radio and TV programs in Iran have spent hours promoting it, while tens of millions of listeners and viewers view the real and worrisome news about Iran’s situation that is beamed from radio and TV networks in the United States and Europe. Official Iran is well aware that there is almost no home in the country whose TV is not tuned into stations from abroad, while the audience for Iran’s own state networks has declined drastically.

A Divided Conservative Camp

With no improvement in sight for Iran’s dire situation, Ebrahim Raisi finds himself under fire from among his own conservative camp. Even Khamenei loyalists agree that in these last ten months, Raisi’s deputies and ministers have turned in a very subpar performance. Last week, Minister of Labor and Welfare Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki, who had asserted in his swearing-in speech to the parliament that he would create jobs for the tens of millions of unemployed, particularly young people and university graduates, resigned from his post.

The parliament, where the conservatives dominate, has acknowledged the dismal economic reality and warned the president that its support for the rest of the government ministers cannot be taken for granted. Members of parliament called on the president to show more energy and expertise in running the country. Some members advised him to replace the ministers and deputies before it was too late. In addition, on June 19, parliament approved a measure to dismiss the Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade Reza Fatemi Amin in light of his failed management of the vehicle industry.

Meanwhile, Iranian media report growing friction within the conservative camp and its power bases. Amid the debacles in the security and intelligence domain (assassinations of scientists, security and intelligence leaks, attacks on military sites) and the weakness of Raisi and his government, the rift between major conservative figures has deepened. In recent days, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ intelligence service arrested several more conservative journalists, charging them with posting classified information on websites and endangering regime assets.

Recently, websites of young conservative journalists who are close to intelligence officials posted a news item about bitter disputes between, on one side, Ali Larijani, former chairman of the parliament, and his brother, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, and on the other, Saeed Jalili, former president of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Reportedly, there was a heated spat over government policy and how it should handle the continuing and complex crisis, with accusations flying.

Iran’s economic plight aggravates disputes over what policy to adopt within the conservative camp itself, which currently dominates all the governmental institutions and the regime’s power centers. The regime now has no one to blame for the fiascos. It has pushed aside the reformists, placing their leaders under protracted house arrest, and clamped down on all dissent. It now faces its failures—economic and security-intelligence—alone. The cracks in the conservative camp are widening as Iran struggles economically and the issue of who will succeed the 83-year-old Khamenei looms and gains importance. The failure of Raisi and his government will probably also influence who eventually succeeds Khamenei.

At the same time, the opposition to the regime is weak, divided and disorganized both domestically and abroad. The monarchists and the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), the largest opposition groups outside of Iran, show almost no cooperation between them, and their influence within Iran is unclear. The opposition groups and protesters within the country are subject to the regime’s nonstop surveillance and repression and have little ability to coordinate and collaborate. At the moment, it does not appear that the mass protests and worsening economic woes will lead to the regime’s collapse in the short term.

The unrest and protests, however, are more frequent, embracing more and more sectors and continuing, even if at low intensity, over time. Although the event that could trigger the ignition of a broader protest that will undermine the regime cannot be foreseen precisely, the accumulating demonstrations and unrest over economic distress and human rights abuses could hasten such an event. If it occurs, it will reverberate in the Persian-language media and networks abroad, which have an essential role to play within Iran. Against this backdrop, the regime is trying hard to disrupt the broadcasts, influence their contents and even delete “problematic” material from social media.

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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