Despite the intense pressures the Iranian regime has faced due to the protests that swept the county as of 28 December, the government has shown no signs of willingness to change its domestic and foreign policies in a way that would diminish the possibility of another wave of demonstrations.
In fact, the measures the regime has taken so far suggest that it has failed to grasp the underlying causes and the nature of the protests. Although the military establishment – above all the Revolutionary Guard – declared last week that the demonstrations had ended, they continue to spread from one province to another.
The government has stated that it would step in to reduce the costs of certain commodities whose prices have soared recently, yet it has not signalled any intent to lower the levels of funding it provides to allies abroad.
Meanwhile, the regime has sustained its roundups of individuals believed to be instrumental in the demonstrations. It has targeted university students in particular, as they have always played a central role in protest activity in Iran in light of the important political status of the student movement in the country.
Not surprisingly, the regime continues to harp on the theme that the protests are “supported by foreign agencies with the intent of undermining the pillars of the regime from within,” even though it is perfectly aware that the protests have their roots in actual domestic conditions worsened by the regime’s radical policies.
These policies, which run counter to the will and aspirations of the people, contributed to aggravating the popular discontent, ultimately driving thousands to pour out to the streets to voice their views, not just on the government’s policies and programmes but also on the performance of the political system.
The Iranian regime’s attitude is reflected in a statement released by the Revolutionary Guard on its website Sabah news on 7 January 2018: "The people, tens of thousands of Basij, the police and the Ministry of Intelligence, have succeeded in suppressing the unrest provoked by foreign enemies."
Mohsen Rezaee, former Revolutionary Guard commander and current secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, added that “the demonstrations were the product of plans designed by the US, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (the People’s Mujahedeen) organisation and loyalists of the former regime of the shah who are in Irbil in Iraq.”
Ironically, the foregoing statement conflicts with remarks by quite a few prominent Iranian politicians and clerics who held that some of the protesters’ demands were legitimate. They also criticised the government for failing to deal seriously with the standard of living problem faced by a broad segment of the Iranian people. The popular economic frustrations, they said, fuelled the protests and drove demonstrators to condemn the government’s policies.
Rezaee’s statement conflicts with other concrete realties, most notably the substantial Iranian influence in Iraq. In addition to its strong relations with the central government in Baghdad, Tehran also has good relations with some Kurdish forces in the north which contributed to obstructing the Iraqi Kurdistan bid to act on the results of the independence referendum in September.
Iranian authorities took other decisions that are likely to have negative repercussions. One is the Supreme Educational Council’s decision to ban English language instruction in primary schools. The decision was a response to Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei’s warning that teaching children English at an early age would increase the chances of Western cultural invasion.
The foregoing developments have two important implications. Firstly, the regime is still in the thralls of conspiracy theorising as a way to explain the current protests. Its line of reasoning is that the West is conspiring to invade Iran culturally after having failed to do so militarily.
Secondly, the openness espoused by President Hassan Rouhani's government has proven itself no more than a facade, an attempt to touch up the Iranian image abroad but with no genuine intent to take measures to improve relations with Iran’s neighbours and to stop supporting the forces of anarchy and instability.
President Rouhani, for his part, has shown that his policies are, in effect, merely an attempt win support and enhance his prospects of winning a second term in the presidential elections. He has no real desire to take the necessary measures to come through on his pledges for reform.
In general, if the regime succeeds in continuing the protest crisis, this will not cause the demands to fade away. To do so, it will have to stop its conspiracy approach to the protests, attempt to identify the deeper causes and devise mechanisms for meeting the people’s demands. If it fails to do so, as appears likely, Iran will be heading for a more severe crisis.