Did the US cause Iran’s Economic Protests & will Trump Take Advantage?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The scattered urban protests that began in Mashhad on Thursday spread to several other provincial cities on Friday, including Qom, Rasht, Kerman and Qazvin. This is like protests in the US starting in Boston and spreading to Denver and Cleveland.

Predictably, Trump had to get involved, tweeting an objection to the government’s arrest of protesters. Jeff Sessions had people arrested for laughing in protest at him. If people in Iran think Trump is behind this movement, that would kill it right there.

One thing I have to complain about in the US press coverage is people saying protests in Iran are rare because it is a totalitarian state. Actually small protests about economic issues are pretty normal from time to time and here and there. There have been lots of protest movements with a political overtone, as well. Something like summer of 2009, when there were really big rallies in the big cities that lasted for months– now, that is rare. It remains to be seen whether this wave of protests is all that important.

It seems clear that the rallies began with complaints against Iran’s bad economy. People are complaining about inflation, high prices and the reduction or removal of government subsidies.

That economic focus of the protests is a little ironic. Iran is back up to exporting 2.5 million barrels a day of petroleum. President Obama’s severe sanctions before the nuclear deal in summer, 2015, had involved twisting the arms of countries like South Korea not to buy Iranian petroleum, and had reduced exports to 1.5 mn barrels per day. Moreover, today the price of petroleum is roughly $60 per barrel, which is way up from last summer. In short, Iran should have had a lot of money coming in during the past couple of months.

But at the level of the ordinary person who doesn’t directly share in oil wealth, there was a loss of real income during the Obama sanctions and people haven’t recovered. Moreover, since the GOP Congress and Trump are trying to destroy the nuclear deal, they have declined to lift US unilateral sanctions on Iran, and implicitly threaten European corporations who plan to invest in Iran with US Treasury Department sanctions. So the gold rush of investment that Rouhani promised the public to come as a result of the nuclear deal has not materialized to the extent that Iran wanted. And lack of foreign investment has hurt job growth.

In addition, a problem with rentier states like Iran, which depend on one or two pricey primary commodities, is that it is hard to get the money into people’s hands, even where government bureaucrats aren’t hopelessly corrupt and keep it for themselves. If you just give the money out it causes inflation by increasing the money supply in the absence of any rise in productivity, i.e. any increase in goods produced per person per hour. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. And inflation eats up the value of money. So people end up worse than before. Moreover, having a pricey primary commodity hardens your currency artificially. Iranian raisins and pecans and carpets are expensive in India for the arbitrary reason that Iran has petroleum. So exports are hurt (ironically, Obama’s sanctions may actually have been good for non-oil exports since the value of the riyal dropped). Small oil countries like Kuwait can sometimes bribe their people to keep quiescent, though that doesn’t always work (in Bahrain sectarian disputes make that bargain hard to implement).

Anyway, what appear to be remnants of the failed 2009 Green Movement emerged among the crowds, chanting not for reform but for the fall of the regime. People condemned the “dictator” (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical leader) and also slammed President Hassan Rouhani. They said they wanted the akhunds, a disrespectful word for clerics, to “give back the country.”

They also wanted to know why Iran was spending all that money propping up the al-Assad regime in Syria instead of spending it on the Iranian public. This theme of “Iran first” had also been prominent in 2009.

People in Quchan (in the far east of the country over near Turkmenistan) were chanting “Death to Rouhani!” and denouncing high prices:

To the extent that the protests come out of economic distress, the US is certainly a big part of the problem here, acting in part at the behest of the Israel lobbies and in part at those of the arms manufacturers and oil interests. The US overthrew the Iranian government in 1953 in part by putting a severe boycott on nationalized Iranian oil, and provoking protests against the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

That is the GOP and Trump playbook again these days.

Which is not to say that there aren’t real discontents in Iran. It remains to be seen how widespread and intense they are.


Related video:

Euronews: “Iran’s anti-government protests spread to major cities”

Posted in Featured,Iran | 10 Responses | Print |

10 Responses

  1. With the history of American involvement in Iran, and the headline, all I can think of is that possibly the combined intelligence forces of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their lesser allies have somehow implanted a few cells in Iran that set some of this off?

    And thanks again Juan, for the important reminder about the incidence of protest in Iran, a very important correction to the subtle slurs against civil liberties in Iran that are detectable in nearly all mainstream media coverage of Iran.

  2. Shouldn’t the last sentence in the third-to-last paragraph read:

    The US overthrew the Iranian government in 1953 in part by putting a severe boycott on nationalized Iranian oil, and staging phony protests against the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

  3. What else? The neo-con’s idea has been to de-stabilize and eventually balkanize Iran. Fif-columns and false flags are the main tools in their conquering enterprise.

  4. Although the reign of Iranian clerics will come to an end sooner or later, the question is how it will come to an end, whether it is through peaceful, democratic means such as the election of more moderate governments and gradually lifting domestic restrictions and opening up to the world, or whether it comes through a violent regime change that Trump Administration and hardliner Israelis favor. We have seen the outcome of that form of disastrous regime change by outside forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria and none of them has worked out very well.

    As you rightly point out, “If people in Iran think Trump is behind this movement, that would kill it right there.” After the travel ban on Iranians, the extreme support for anti-Iranian despotic regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, the total disregard of the rights of the Palestinians, the efforts to decertify the nuclear deal with Iran, etc. very few Iranians would look to this administration for help or regard it as their savior. Again, as you point out, all the indications from the demonstrations that have taken place in a number of Iranian cities point out to hardliners support for the protests in order to weaken Ruhani’s government. They are mainly attacking his opening to the outside world, and the failure of his nuclear deal with the West to bring about any tangible economic benefits. If the demonstrators can weaken President Rouhani’s government and pave the way for the emergence of another hardliner such as Ahmadi-Nejad it will not do any good either to the West or to the Iranians.

    The best thing that could be done is to reassure Iranians that their uprising against their unpopular rulers would not result in foreign meddling or the kind of bloodshed that we have seen in the rest of the Middle East. This means fewer tweets by President Trump and uninformed statements by the State Department.

  5. Dumb idea for the US to make statements supporting Iranian dissidents. The Iranian government will use this as an excuse to brand the dissidents as tools of the “Great Satan.”

  6. I’m sure Trump would support the Iranian government using extreme violent tactics to put down the protests. Remember what he said about the Chinese:
    “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

  7. Is it fair to say that, although the nuclear deal (JCPOA) was signed under the term of the Obama administration, it was in effect during Obama’s presidency long enough for the clear signs of its improper implementation from the US side to be clear? My point is, Trump picked up from a situation where Obama negotiated the JCPAO carrot while not doing enough to remove the sanctions stick.

  8. Trump is an idiot with absolutely no conception of diplomacy or playing the game of foreign policy. Trump cannot resist taking credit for the protests and thereby killing any chance for real reform. Hopefully, this will be a lesson to the Dem establishment that they cannot force a Wall Street loser like Hillary on us, and to the general public that, if it walks like a buffoon, talks like a buffoon, and tweets like a buffoon, it’s a buffoon.

  9. When I go on PressTV I make it a point to read the comments. From what I can gather the Iranian are as frustrated with their government, as is the U.S. citizens with our government leaders. Now the Iranian are taking to the streets with protest, which makes me wonder to when will Americans take to the streets in massive protest against unwanted government policies?

    I feel for Hassan Rouhani that in regard domestically in his own country to how some view his P5+1 Nuke Deal that so far the U.S. has made such a scrambles of it, but the buck stops with Rouhani. I feel for Americans that don’t take note of what elements of government in Iran may be granted popular power for whomever demonizes ‘the Great Satan’ for all of it’s satanic hegemonic chaos. The clue to who will gain entrance to the halls of Iranian power won’t be the U.S. friendly Iranians that’s for sure, and with that that is certainly most regrettable.

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