As demonstrations spread across country, what next for Iran protests?

Demonstrations are spreading across Iran and turning increasingly violent, but analysts say a lack of leadership and political support mean they may struggle to maintain momentum.

Published: 02nd January 2018 08:33 PM  |   Last Updated: 02nd January 2018 08:42 PM   |  A+A-

Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran. (Photo | AP)

By AFP

TEHRAN: Demonstrations are spreading across Iran and turning increasingly violent, but analysts say a lack of leadership and political support mean they may struggle to maintain momentum.

Can the protests continue?

"The more violent the protests become the sooner they will come to an end, regardless of whether the violence is started by riot police or the protesters," said Adnan Tabatabai, Iran analyst and CEO of Germany-based think tank CARPO.

Reports on Tuesday said two members of the security forces had been shot dead, while six protesters had died trying to storm a police post -- all in Isfahan province. 

"It will make a crackdown more justifiable and the solidarity among the Iranian people will be limited," said Tabatabai.

Ellie Geranmayeh, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Tuesday's message by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he blamed the unrest on Iran's external enemies, suggested tougher measures were imminent.

"I doubt these protests will spiral out of control for the regime in the way some Washington analysts are predicting," she said.

"The supreme leader is not giving any grounds for more protests. With the death toll rising, I think you'll see more of a crackdown in these smaller towns, with units deployed from larger areas that are calm."

Still, Tabatabai said an unpredictable event could yet change the course of events, such as the symbolic death of a protester or an inflammatory statement by an official. 

How do these differ from the mass protests in 2009?

Huge crowds took to the streets of Tehran after allegations that hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election was rigged.

The defeated reformist leaders became the obvious leaders of what was known as the "Green Movement", but it was ultimately crushed by a ruthless security clampdown.

"There hasn't been any heavy support from the reformist camp this time," said Geranmayeh.

"They've been burned by these radical measures before. Now they want to work through the political process."

Reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who has been barred from making public appearances ever since the 2009 demonstrations, denounced the current unrest on Tuesday.

Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Iran Pulse for Al-Monitor, said the lack of leadership this time could be an advantage, denying any obvious target to the authorities.

But he said it also makes it unlikely the protests can evolve into a coherent movement with clear demands.

"Lacking in apparent political organisation and being disconnected from the elites -- including the reformists -- means the more radical protesters effectively have no allies within the political establishment," Shabani said.

"Since their demands cannot be channelled, this segment may become more radicalised and violent, ultimately pushing away other protesters from the streets and also triggering a harsher government crackdown."

What should be Rouhani's next move?

President Hassan Rouhani came to power promising to improve the economy and improve civil liberties, but the unrest has shown the deep frustration at the lack of progress.

Nonetheless, he could find advantage in the chaos. 

"If he manages to bring calm within a couple weeks he may come out of this looking like a good crisis manager," said Tabatabai. 

"But he has to take the demands of the socially and economically weak seriously," he added, starting with a removal of some of the austerity measures in his latest budget, which included welfare cuts and fuel price hikes.

A few key reforms are needed, Shabani added, such as finally allowing peaceful gatherings, which are, in theory, guaranteed by the constitution.

"And he must engage with the supreme leader to convince him of the need to tackle unaccountable power centres," said Shabani.

Rouhani has had something of a running battle with the Revolutionary Guards in recent years as he tries to make their business empire more transparent, and above all, taxable.

"He shot the first salvo in this battle when he decided to make this year's budget bill more transparent," said Shabani.

"Now he needs to turn that into action."



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