President Hassan Rouhani will hope to push his reform agenda. Reuters / Stephanie Keith
President Hassan Rouhani will hope to push his reform agenda. Reuters / Stephanie Keith

The public protests in Iran are entering a second week. They have become countrywide with a diverse social mix taking part. There have also been incidents of vandalism directed at public property.

What began as an eruption of public discontent about the high level of unemployment, economic hardships and price hikes has taken on the random features of anti-government sentiment. Yet, it is not as if the protests are turning into an insurrection or a ‘Color Revolution’.

In all likelihood, they will subside. The big question is whether the government will be compelled to use coercive methods to scatter the protestors? So far, it appears the approach is to ride out the turbulence.

At the highest level of government, President Hassan Rouhani, even while alleging external incitement and Saudi Arabia in particular, has acknowledged that there are genuine grievances among the people. Rouhani also admitted: “One of the people’s demands is a more open atmosphere.”

He seemed to sense what was happening on the streets was an opportunity to push forward his reform agenda within the corridors of power in Tehran.

He reportedly remarked: “We should listen to this voice and turn it into an opportunity. We should see what the problem is and also what the solution is … The people should express their grievances in a way that will lead to better living conditions for citizens and investments in the country.”

Clearly, Rouhani is not flustered. Nor is he on the defensive. But it does need gumption to say publicly at this point: “Iran’s economy is better than the global average. However, it does not mean that all the problems have been solved.

“The problems should be resolved through unity. If we all unite, I have no doubt that the people will support us,” he went on to say. “If necessary, the people will pour into the streets to defend the system. However, it does not mean ignoring voices of criticism and protest.”

Remarks such as these suggest Rouhani does not fear any significant erosion in his thumping mandate after the elections in May. But his dilemma is that there is no quick fix to the accumulated economic problems.

Apart from the fall in oil revenue and the renewed United States sanctions, there are structural problems in terms of pricing, allocation of resources, the interplay of market forces, rampant corruption and so on.

The Majlis, also known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Iranian Parliament, has proved to be conservative vis-à-vis Rouhani’s reform agenda. Hence the remark directed at the heads of parliamentary commissions during a meeting in Tehran on Monday: “All bodies, in proportion to their responsibility, should join hands to resolve the problems facing the country.”

But there is unanimity of opinion among the top leadership in Tehran that the unrest has been instigated and fueled by outside powers. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei touched on it briefly, adding: “I have a lot more to say about these developments but will share them with our dear people in a due time.”

On the other hand, the powerful Secretary-General of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, was brutally frank and explicit.

The Saudi [Arabian] government has hired people to provoke the Iranians to participate in street protests, by using social media and making different hash tags [#] against the government in Iran,” Shamkhani said.

“Based on studies, around 27% of the hash tags which have been made belong to the Saudis. Of course, they don’t belong to the Saudi people but the Saudi government, meaning the [administration] of Mohammed bin Salman [the crown prince].

“[He] launches these hash tags, and those who do this are the Israelis and westerners. The hash tags about the situation in Iran have been launched from the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia,” Shamkhani added.

Significantly, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, held a phone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarifon, on Tuesday about the situation in Iran. Ankara appears to have shared intelligence with Tehran, reciprocating the Iranian gesture during the failed coup attempt in Turkey back in July, 2016.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also issued a statement, expressing concern over the developments in Iran, but voicing support for the government and cautioning against “provocative rhetoric and external intervention.”

The written statement said that Turkey “attaches great importance to the protection of friendly and brotherly Iran’s social peace and stability.”

It is too early to assess the impact of the developments on regional politics or, more importantly, on Iran’s regional policies.

What is apparent is that US President Donald Trump apart, only three regional states – two Muslim countries and one non-Muslim – feel elated over the turmoil in Iran. They are namely, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Obviously, this is sweet music to their ears.

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