Nationwide protests that broke out over the weekend are the latest challenge to the Iranian regime that’s already struggling to fix a battered economy, hostile ties with the U.S. and waning influence in West Asia. The trigger was the government’s decision to raise the price of rationed fuel. Thousands of people took to the streets, reminiscent of recent protests in Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon and neighbouring Iraq. The protesters chanted slogans against the Islamic regime, carried “Death to Khamenei” posters, in a direct challenge to the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and burned down banks and stores. Security personnel reportedly unleashed violence on the protesters, while the government shut down the Internet. According to Iranian media, at least 12 people were killed, including security personnel, and some 1,000 protesters were arrested. Both President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei, the real ruler of Iran, have condemned the protests, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s top paramilitary force, has threatened to crack down on the demonstrations, raising the prospects of more violence.
Iran still has one of the lowest fuel prices in the world. But the rise was enough for a people reeling under high inflation, joblessness and a collapsing economy to take to the streets. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions has dealt a blow to Iran’s economy. Inflation has risen to 40%. A quarter of Iran’s youth are unemployed. And according to the IMF, the country’s economy is expected to contract by 9.5% this year, while the currency, the rial, has plunged to record lows against the dollar. It is now evident that the collapse of the nuclear deal has cost the Iranian economy dearly. And the protests broke out at a time when Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq is being challenged by protesters. In Iraq, protesters burned an Iranian consulate and turned their anger against Iran-trained militias. In Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hezbollah is a key pillar of the government, protesters demand the resignation of the entire political class. And now in Iran, the protesters challenge the regime itself. In recent years, Iran has seen many protests and labour agitations. And the regime’s response has always been typical. It branded the protesters as counter-revolutionaries and blamed foreign hands. The economic woes have weakened the delicate balance between the regime and its angry youth. The latest round of protests might die down. But Iran needs a lasting solution to address its revolting underbelly. It can’t violently suppress the protesters forever and needs to get the nuclear deal back on track.