There are enough causes of the protests rocking Iran that it’s tempting (as is usually the case with hindsight) to deem it over-determined. However, the spark may have been the leak last month of the government’s proposed budget. According to Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times:
Iranians discovered that billions of dollars were going to hard-line organizations, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and religious foundations that enrich the clerical elite. At the same time, the budget proposed to end cash subsidies for millions of citizens, increase fuel prices and privatize public schools. . . .
Iran’s military forces, active in several countries in the Middle East, saw their budget increase to $11 billion, a nearly 20 percent rise, he said. The budget for representatives of the supreme leader in universities was increased. An institute run by the hard-line cleric Mohammad Taghi Meshbah-Yazdi was to receive eight times as much as a decade ago.
This spending pattern probably wasn’t much of a secret among the professional and middle classes in Tehran. But for those living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages — considered the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime — the news appears to have sparked an “Iran First” protest movement.
One can, in some respects, compare this movement to President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. In Iran, the swamp to be drained is the corrupt religious institutions that siphon off so much wealth (along with a notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, to be sure). The foreign wars to be curtailed are, of course, those Iran is waging and/or sponsoring throughout the region.
Erdbrink’s article wouldn’t be a New York Times story on Iran if it didn’t push the hardliners vs. moderates angle. President Rouhani, the “moderate,” is said to have leaked the budget. Hardliners are said to have organized the initial provincial demonstrations as a protest against Rouhani’s economic policies.
All of this may well be true. However, as Erdbrink’s story makes clear, both the “moderates” and the hardliners now are targets of the protesters. Unlike in 2009, this uprising isn’t focused on cleaning up the regime’s electoral process. Thus, says Erdbrink:
While the protests that swept Iran in 2009 were led by the urban middle class, these protests have been largely driven by disaffected young people in rural areas, towns and small cities who have seized an opening to vent their frustrations with a political elite they say has hijacked the economy to serve its own interests.
In this context, the hardliner vs. moderates angle probably has little salience. That some moderates share the population’s disgust with regime may well be a sign of the regime’s weakness, but the threat to the regime does not come from the “moderates.” Nor, compromised as they are by their complicity with the regime, are they likely to be relevant when things eventually boil over.