Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets over the past week in massive, widespread demonstrations against Tehran’s political elite. The rare protests are reminiscent of the country’s last major uprising in 2009, but almost a decade apart, the movements are vastly different in scale and direction.
Millions of people descended upon Iran’s capital in June 2009 after hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured a second term in an election marred by damning claims of vote-rigging.
The explosive uprising, led in part by defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was the largest since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. State forces cracked down violently, opening fire on protesters who chanted “Where is my vote?” and making scores of sweeping arrests.
The current anti-government clashes erupted in the city of Mashhad and have now spread across the country and stretched into a second week. Incensed Iranians are expressing their frustrations with socioeconomic issues including rising inflation and unemployment, and allegations of widespread corruption.
President Donald Trump has tweeted his support for the demonstrations “against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” His administration also criticized former President Barack Obama’s “shameful” inaction during the 2009 unrest (while simultaneously banning Iranians from entering the U.S.).
As with the Green Movement, the Iranian government is retaliating with mass arrests and restrictions on dissent. Both demonstrations created enormous challenges for Tehran, but unlike the 2009 revolt, experts say, today’s protests are an extension of Iran’s civil rights movement fueled by longstanding grievances, rather than a coordinated revolution. Several factors highlight the key differences.
Green Movement protesters were mainly middle-class professionals rallying alongside Mousavi’s reformist supporters. But now, the unfolding protests are largely being driven by lower- and middle-class Iranians who are disappointed by the limited economic improvement the nation experienced as a result of its historic 2015 nuclear agreement, among other grievances.
After decades of diplomatic friction between Tehran and the West, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from stifling economic sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani, a key architect of the deal who was re-elected in May, promised it would revive the economy and create millions of jobs.
The vast majority of people who have been arrested in the past few days are under 25 years old, Iranian authorities claim.
Organizers of the Green Movement have been “completely taken by surprise” by the present demonstrations, according to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. “They’re on the sidelines. They had no idea this was coming. They were not part of this. And to a certain extent, they’ve even kept a calculated distance from these protests because they’re not entirely clear of what the direction is going,” he told NPR on Wednesday.
Today’s protesters are “much poorer, much less hopeful, and ― in a way that one person described it to me ― they feel they have absolutely nothing to lose,” he added. “That’s why you have these calls for the complete overthrow of the government. That’s very different from the Green Movement.”
The number of protesters is also drastically different; there were millions in 2009, compared with thousands over the past week.
Without a clear leader, the current demonstrations likely lack the coordination needed to begin a revolution, according to NIAC research director Reza Marashi.
“In 2009, mass discontent and leadership emerged, but state monopoly on violence played a key role in preventing the other pillars from taking root in a sustainable fashion ― by way of cracking down on protesters, and imprisoning opposition leaders,” he wrote in a HuffPost blog post earlier this week.
“As things stand in Iran today, mass discontent remains clear, but protesters have been less coordinated. They currently lack a discernible organizational network. No shared ideology has emerged beyond general disdain for the government. And the protests have thus far been devoid of any leadership.”
The government has temporarily restricted access to certain social media channels, including Instagram and Telegram, a messaging app. Unlike in 2009, social media platforms and smartphones have reportedly been critical tools to organize protests, in the absence of actual leaders.
By contrast, the protest leaders in 2009 “played a really important role,” according to Iran expert Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution. “They effectively legitimized the protests as something that was politically sanctioned. We haven’t seen an episode like that, where someone who’s part of the system called upon their followers to go to the streets.”
Whereas the Green Movement was mainly concentrated in Tehran, the recent protests have rapidly spread in smaller numbers to scores of cities and towns nationwide, in some ways making it more difficult for state forces to suppress them.
Iran’s supreme leader, ultra-conservative cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the chaos on Iran’s foreign rivals.
“In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic,” Khamenei, the country’s highest-ranking authority, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Rouhani, in a pre-recorded speech broadcast on state media Sunday, urged restraint on all sides: “We are a free nation. And according to the constitution and citizen rights, the people are free to express their criticism and even their protests.” He also cautioned that “criticism should not be accompanied with violence or vandalizing public property.”
The protests’ rapid escalation is of particular concern, according to Maloney.
“This began in Mashhad as opposed to Tehran, and really percolated at least in the first 24 to 36 hours outside the capital. That’s a very important distinction in that Tehran has always been the center of political gravity for the Islamic Republic and contemporary Iran,” she said. “That quick escalation is a real point of concern for the regime, because it suggests that this is no longer about one individual or faction versus another, this is very much about a sense of alienation at a basic level.”
Where the protests are headed or what the outcome will be remains unclear, Maloney added, but there is a feeling of “simmering rage” that can’t be resolved by quick fixes or short-term changes.
“I think this represents one of the most serious challenges to the Islamic Republic since its inception,” she said, “precisely because of the passion of those on the streets and the extent to which they appear to be ready to effectively jettison the entirety of the system rather than focus their ire on one particular individual or policy.”