Iran protests becoming widespread

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Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Iran is in the midst of a wave of protests which have taken the Government and security forces by surprise.

United States President Donald Trump has, not surprisingly, weighed into the debate, siding with the protesters and angering the Iranian Administration.

Mr Trump is not popular in Iran because of his travel ban which has prevented Iranians visiting their American relatives. Mr Trump has also tried to influence other countries against dealing with Iran and he has sided with Saudi Arabia in blaming Teheran for all conflicts in the Middle East.

However, the protests in Iran are more about the domestic economy, although a touch of foreign policy concerns are coming to the fore as the protests continue to grow.

What started off in the holy city of Mashhad as demonstrations about unpaid wages and inflation have quickly spread throughout the country, widening to include grievances about government mismanagement, corruption and Teheran's involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

The protests were earlier confined to rural and relatively poorer cities. But such is the groundswell, the Government is being forced to take them seriously.

The person with most to lose is President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 with promises to reduce unemployment and inflation while at the same time growing the economy.

The country is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran's system of dual clerical and republican rule.

The protesters have little chance of toppling the clerical leaders who appear to be retaining control of the military, policy and security forces, and have no compunction against using them, according to reports from the US.

Mr Rouhani is more exposed because he is more closely tied to the country's economic policies. He is seen as a pragmatist at odds with Iran's hardliners and has said in response to the protests Iranians have a right to criticise the authorities.

Protesters are angry Iran's youth unemployment is edging towards 30%. They want higher wages and an end to graft. Officials are acknowledging the people have economic worries but whether they will be listened to is the biggest unknown. Already, hundreds have been arrested but bloodshed has been limited, unlike the protests held in 2009.

If the conservative hardliners get their way, and blood is spilt, the protests are expected to become even more widespread and violent.

The protests are not new around the world but take a special significance in Iran, which missed the Arab Spring changes when despots and tyrants were overthrown.

Poorer Iranians are openly questioning why their Government is spending money in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and not on its own people. It has been the poor which have, until now, been supporting the regime, but broad segments of Iranian society may not support the views of the protesters. Islamic State and Wahhabi Islam, the state-sponsored religion of Saudi Arabia, are viewed as threats by many Iranians. Many believe it is better to fight Sunni fundamentalism in Iraq and Syria rather than inside Iran's borders.

The expected next step is for the hard-line faction to blame Mr Rouhani for the protests. They will portray his Government as having failed the urban poor and exaggerating the benefits of the nuclear deal. In return, Mr Rouhani's supporters will blame hard-line factions for blocking needed economic reforms and stifling the relaxation of Islamic dress code for women.

Ayatollah Khamenei is expected to stay above the fray, at least in public, reprimanding all sides for using protests for political gain. He will blame outsiders, particularly the US and Mr Trump, for incitement.

Privately, it is hoped he will back Mr Rouhani and give him the latitude to aggressively pursue his agenda of economic reform. Demographics are not on the side of the hardliners as 60% of the population is under 30, the worst affected by a lack of economic reform. Any attempt by the Government to contain the protests by force is expected to not only lift the risk of violence, but also encourage the involvement of many more Iranians.

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