Several Iranian cities are in the grip of a popular uprising, reminiscent of the ‘Arab Spring’ movement. A deep undercurrent of frustration over growing unemployment, inflation, corruption and political repression has turned Iran into a tinderbox. In a spontaneous outburst of anger, people from all walks of life have hit the streets in over 50 cities, protesting against deteriorating living conditions. The unrest is also reflective of the yearning by Iranian women for freedom, basic rights and dignity. The biggest demonstrations in the recent history, particularly vehement among the poor and middle-class sections, pose the toughest challenge to President Hassan Rouhani who is struggling to revive an ailing economy badly affected by international sanctions over the country’s nuclear programme. Dozens have been killed in security crackdown and thousands of protestors have been detained as the government blamed ‘foreign enemies’ for stoking the fire and encouraging protestors. Unlike the protests in 2009 that were largely focused on the disputed presidential election, the latest uprising is targeting the heart of the orthodox regime with demonstrators demanding an end to Islamic rule and the ouster of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a call that is unheard of in the conservative nation. The 2009 protests, which were largely peaceful and supported by urban middle-class residents of Tehran, gave birth to the ‘Green Movement’ pushing for civil rights, flexibility and accountability from the government. The present bout of unrest is more a manifestation of subaltern anger over rising costs, unemployment and corruption of the political elite.
The protests began in Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city and home to the shrine of a major figure in Shia Islam, and soon spread to other towns. The recent hike in fuel prices has come as the last straw as people were already struggling to cope with falling incomes and growing cost of living. Rouhani is a moderate leader who struck a deal with the world powers in 2015 to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting economic sanctions. He has embarked upon a reforms programme to put the economy on track. With the youth accounting for more than half of the country’s 81 million population, growing unemployment is a major cause for worry. The estimates of unemployment rate vary from 27% to 60%. The prolonged turmoil can have an adverse impact on the geopolitics of the region. On its part, India will be keenly watching the developments as Iran continues to be one of the key suppliers of crude oil. Iran is also an important player in the development of a transit corridor around Chabahar port that India hopes to use to bypass Pakistan.