Is Iranian society ready to revolt against poverty, injustice, and political repression? For decades, US administrations have hoped that a popular uprising will lead to the collapse of the Islamic Republic.
Over the past two years, Iranian adversaries Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, and the UAE have funded a major propaganda campaign to highlight the regime’s incompetence. Nonetheless, apart from sporadic opposition such as protests against a sudden rise in fuel prices in November 2019, there has been no sign of a nationwide uprising against the regime.
Urbanisation, technological development, economic integration, and increasing political awareness have created a politically aware society with a nuanced ability to gauge the options for protest. What then, determines the likelihood of a major upheaval in the near future?
What happened to the Green Movement?
Mass protests against the results of the 2009 presidential election were known as the Green Movement. It remained active throughout 2009 and 2010, and gradually shaped shape an opposition to compel the Islamic Republic to undergo political reform, but in 2011 the authorities clamped down, arresting key figures and putting the three most prominent leaders — Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard — under house arrest.
The street protests and political campaigns died down, but the potential of the Green Movement shifted to online activism. Today, however, the old leaders have lost their significance. The Green Movement has become a leader-less online crusade for reform and restructuring.
Advantages of online activism
The expansion of online activism has coincided with the growth of social media and especially via Telegram and WhatsApp. Instagram is not filtered in Iran and is widely used by social and political elites.
Increasing connectivity is not the cause of social protests but a facilitator, connecting citizens with shared grievances and has allowed Iranians to shed their fear of protest. Social participation in an online movement is much higher than in a street protest. Greater connectivity also creates a space for social dialogue. While social media platforms disseminate news, they also encourage citizens to attempt to find remedies.
Online activism has also empowered civilians to organise more efficiently in times of crisis, as can be seen in the response to COVID-19.
Authorities debate restrictions
Iranian stakeholders are dived and locked in endless debate over whether to restrict the use of social media. Many applications are filtered and users have to go through VPNs to access popular social media but there is no consistent official strategy.
While Twitter is officially banned, for example, most senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, use it and other social media to communicate with their followers.
Some decision makers argue that greater space for online protests would reduce the likelihood of street protests and therefore social unrest.
President Hassan Rouhani’s government has been to primarily focus on expanding internet access. Simultaneously the authorities have clamped down on activists using online platforms to organise protests.
The most significant concern of political elites nonetheless lies elsewhere. They fear the potential for foreign governments to use online platforms to mobilise Iranians. This is well placed because the US State Department spends millions of dollars on information campaigns to depict Iran as an incompetent and corrupt regime, and indirectly encourages citizens to rise up against the regime.
The Iranian authorities therefore remain ambivalent about restricting social media and online activism, while opposition forces continue to seek ways to use such platforms to protest.
Meanwhile Iranian security forces, especially the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) intelligence unit, continue attempting to deter protest. Typically, their first response to street protests is to cut off internet access and limit social media use.
Political engagement and economic motivation
In the absence of political parties and civil society organisations Iranians are drawn to online activism. Many analysts believe that Iran’s young population is ready to transform any dissatisfaction into protest.
Online activities do not rely on leadership or organisation but are usually sporadic reactions to recent events. For example, when three young men were sentenced to death for participating in street protests, a massive social media campaign forced judiciary head Ayatollah Ebrahim Raissi to suspend the executions and order a retrial. Such successes will inspire many to look for ways to influence legal, political, and economic developments.
Socio-economic conditions are the most important driver of current protest. High unemployment — especially youth unemployment of 25% — is taking its toll. And, having pinned their hope for economic improvements on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian are experiencing bitter disappointment.
A society of investors?
Meanwhile, societal and economic phenomena are becoming integrated, as developments with respect to the Tehran Stock Exchange (TSE) reveal.
In April 2018, the government deregulated access to investment that had previously only been open to licensed brokers. Previously a small investor had to identify a trusted broker, sign a contract, and then rely on the broker’s abilities to trade in shares. The cumbersome system therefore only attracted established investors.
Market liberalisation — and the concomitant loosening of a prohibition on trading so-called justice shares (Iran Strategic Focus, June 2020) — introduced millions of individuals to the TSE. The authorities have deliberately turned some 50 million Iranians into investors with a vested interest in political stability.
In essence, while economic grievances drive protest, economic integration acts as an important inhibition on violent upheaval. As such, online activism communicates grievances without risking the regime’s collapse.
Protest, but not too much
With or without technology, protest is always a consequence of social, economic, or political grievances. The situation in Iran delivers multiple reasons for unrest, especially over social injustice, political oppression, and economic conditions. A large segment of Iranian society has no confidence in the political elite’s ability to resolve these challenges.
Online activism offers a platform for organised protest campaigns but this does not mean it will completely replace street protests. Future protests will therefore continue to be organised online so both online and offline activism can be expected to continue.
Nonetheless, the collapse of the regime is highly unlikely because too many Iranians depend on the sustainability of the economic structure.
This is an edited version of an article taken from the latest issue of our monthly Iran Strategic Focus which Menas Associates has been producing since 1988.