What’s driving the protests in Iran?

Iran’s anti-government protests are a result of deep-rooted structural issues that have existed for decades, analysts say.

Years of social and economic inequality have reportedly pushed tens of thousands across the country to rally over the rising cost of living and against the policies of the system that has ruled Iran for more than three decades.

Experts on the country said it is still heavily reliant on its oil reserves, adding that successive governments have failed to solve institutional problems that have piled up over the years.

These include the lack of foreign investment and the overbearing role of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Iran’s inflation is at 9.6 percent while its unemployment rate sits at 13 percent.

However, the unofficial rate is estimated to be almost double the formal figure.

For many Iranians, the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which they thought would bring economic relief through the relaxation of internationally imposed sanctions, has failed to deliver the economic benefits it promised.

Failure of nuclear deal

“People predicted that the honey is coming but it was a miscalculation,” Mahjoob Zweiri, a Doha-based professor of contemporary Arab politics, told Al Jazeera. “They didn’t take seriously the impact of Trump’s policies … The whole deal was not beneficial to Iran.”

The landmark nuclear deal came under threat when US President Donald Trump took office last year.

Trump was a vocal critic of the deal even before he won the presidential race, pledging to change and review much of its content.

In October, he refused to certify the deal curtailing Tehran’s nuclear programme, accusing the country of violating its provisions.

During the first year of his presidency, Trump imposed two new packages of sanctions on Iran, harming its economy even further.

Trita Parsi, founder and president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, said sanctions combined with mismanagement and corruption have taken a toll on Iran’s economy.

“The sanctions have definitely created a tremendous amount of economic pain, which worsened the situation,” Parsi told Al Jazeera.

“Sanctions relief has not really worked and has become even more difficult as a result of the Trump administration constantly speculating that they may kill the nuclear deal.”

Inflation, unemployment, lack of investments

However, Trump’s threats to the nuclear deal are not solely to blame.

Iran’s weary economy has also been damaged by the country’s policies that continue to isolate the country internationally.

Zweiri explained that Iran’s persisting structural problems lay in legislation, the banking system, Iran’s accessibility to the international finance system, and corruption.

With the nuclear deal constantly under threat of revocation, foreign banks that seek to finance investment projects remain hesitant to establish themselves in Iran for fear of sanctions returning.

“All of these structural problems have persisted since the Islamic model came to power in 1980,” Zweiri said.

In the face of mounting economic challenges, the government has increasingly imposed taxes on its citizens.

Last month, Iran’s parliament discussed President Hassan Rouhani‘s budget bill that plans to increase fuel prices.

Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts has also played a role in prompting the latest wave of protests, with citizens accusing the state of misplacing national funds on maintaining the “status quo” in Syria, for instance, and supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

These reasons have triggered widespread anger over the nation’s “mismanaged” funds, says Zweiri.

Reformists vs conservatives

Firas Maksad, deputy executive director of the US-based Arabia Foundation, said the sense among Iranians was that the billions received after the nuclear deal were not spent on the country, but “were instead spent in funding overseas militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon”.

According to Maksad, though sparked by social and economic grievances, the ongoing protests quickly turned “political” with calls for toppling Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rouhani attempted to justify the increase in taxes by citing the “massive entitlement programs of Iran’s religious establishment”, Maksad said.

“Such embezzlement of public funds, along with greater economic pain, ignited public anger,” he added.

Iran’s reformist president Rouhani, who swept into office four years ago on a platform to reduce the country’s international isolation, won a second presidential term in May 2017.

Despite a high voter turnout, up to 30 percent of the population did not take part in the voting process altogether.

According to Parsi, Rouhani won simply because “the alternative was a conservative”.

“Many of the people on the streets right now probably didn’t vote at all … because they don’t believe that voting is going to bring about change.”

According to analysts, another factor working to the detriment of Iran’s economy was the influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Rouhani continues to face resistance from the revolutionary guard whenever he attempts to implement reform.

Those Al Jazeera spoke to said the relationship between Rouhani and the country’s religious elite was one dictated by economic power, and that in reality, there is little the president can do to bring about change.

The powerful revolutionary guards

The country has for years relied on the IRGC’s local investments to keep the economy afloat.

Because of the sanctions, the government “needs” the IRGC to continue developing major projects, explained Mohammad Marandi, an academic at the University of Tehran.

“As long as the sanctions remain in place, the private sector is unwilling to develop or to pursue very large projects on their own because of fear of sanctions.”

Established following the 1979 Islamic revolution, the IRGC is a branch of Iran’s armed forces that is aimed at protecting the country’s Islamic Republic system.

The paramilitary, led by Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is highly influential and deeply involved in the economy.

Zweiri differed with Marandi on whether the IRGC was helping the country or was one of the country’s major problems.

“What prevents foreign investments is the involvement of the IRGC, who push parliament into not approving legislation that would ease the process of foreign investments,” Zweiri said.

Last year, in a bid to welcome investments, Rouhani, perceived as a “moderate”, was accused by conservatives of promoting “Western values” that are “contradictory” to Islamic principles.

The IRGC’s extensive involvement has caused “widespread anger” over the way the guard has monopolised the economy.

According to Parsi, the bulk of Iranians perceive the IRGC as a “mafia that is above the law”, responsible for much of the corruption.

Maksaid said as much as half of Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) is currently under the control of Khamenei and the revolutionary guard, including “mammoth conglomerates in strategic sectors”.

“In addition, Khamenei and the guards control the guns,” he said, referencing previous waves of protests, which were put down with force.

“The system’s inability to implement meaningful reforms is why Iran witnesses social and political unrest every decade, in 1999, in 2009 and now in 2018.”

‘Lack of credibility’

The last wave of protests took place in 2009, when many Iranians demonstrated against alleged voting fraud and called for electoral transparency.

The uprising, which lasted for about 7 months, was met with a campaign of arrests and clashes between armed groups and civilians on the streets.

Historically, Iran also saw waves of demonstrations in 1906, 1952, and 1979.

“So these are waves and the impact of these waves will continue,” Zweiri predicted.

“It is unclear whether [after] this last wave there is still more to come – these [protests] are serious as they show that the regime is lacking credibility,” he said

“The regime’s discourse is no longer in line with the people.

“A huge gap is getting bigger by day between the regime … and the people.”