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Economic Discontent Drives Growing Movement for Regime Change in Iran


The Iranian regime’s officials have been warning the establishment about the prospect of sustained, organized revolt for at least three years – ever since Iran was rocked by the first in a series of nationwide uprisings that brought calls for regime change into the mainstream. Those protests took place across more than 100 cities and towns at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. But they were the culmination of a pattern of escalating unrest that had begun several years earlier.

While the uprising was still ongoing, a spokesperson for the regime’s Interior Ministry reported that there had been approximately 43,000 large public gatherings over a preceding four-year period, amounting to about 30 protests each day on average. To a large extent, these demonstrations were initially motivated by worsening outrage over the country’s economic situation.

Even the January 2018 uprising began with a protest in the city of Mashhad which was focused on the regime’s mismanagement of crises involving inflation and unemployment. But as the movement spread to surrounding areas, the participants began to emphasize a shared understanding that such mismanagement was an essential feature of the theocratic dictatorship and that all of Iran’s sustained problems originated with the structure of the government.

With that in mind, protesters began repeating unusually anti-regime slogans like “death to the dictator” while also explicitly rejecting both factions of the regime – the “principlists” associated with the dictator himself, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as the “reformists” whose most prominent representative is currently the outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani.

That anger stems from Rouhani and his faction being implicated in financial corruption and oppression right alongside the principlists, or hardliners. Rouhani’s own younger brother and close advisor, Hossein Fereydoun, was famously sentenced to five years in prison in 2019, for charges that included receiving bribes.

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As a matter of fact, Khamenei wields direct control over several financial institutions, one known as the Foundation for Execution of the Imam’s Directive, which is funded almost entirely through the confiscation of Iranians’ property and assets, often under false pretenses. The foundation comprises a significant portion of the literally hundreds of billions of dollars that Khamenei may retain or release at his sole discretion.

That discretion was put to the test over the past year by the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Iran much harder than any other country in the region. According to the regime’s Health Ministry engineered statistics the death toll from domestic outbreaks is approaching 70,000. underreporting. The National Council of Resistance of Iran estimates that the actual death toll is now more than a quarter of a million. The current Covid-19 crisis is due to the regime’s refusal to take serious countermeasures.

Khamenei’s and his regime absolutely had the means to lock down and contain the spread of Covid-19 at an early stage. Instead, the regime actively covered up community spread for as much as two months, and in March 2020, when the outbreak was in full swing, Khamenei announced that the just-begun Iranian calendar year should be considered “the year of boosting production.” Many Iranians were therefore encouraged to continue working, and many others were simply left with no other choice but to sink deeper into poverty and to run the risk of starvation.

This generally would not have been a new experience. Three years earlier, Ali Akbar Sayari, a former Deputy Health Minister, was quoted as saying that around a third of the population was effectively starving. Today, 80 percent of Iranians are living below the poverty line, and with inflation still spiraling out of control, space continues growing between that line and the wages that a person would have to earn in order to comfortably afford the necessities of life in Iran. Some basic foodstuffs increased in price by 25 percent in just the past month, according to the state media outlet ILNA.

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These conditions have been highlighted in 13 consecutive weeks of protests by Iranian pensioners, who report finding it more and more difficult to simply feed themselves. But beyond just bringing attention to the state of the Iranian economy, these protesters have also been helping to rekindle the sentiments that fueled the January 2018 uprising and its successor movements. Recently, the pensioners publicly endorsed a boycott of the forthcoming sham presidential election, on the understanding that its outcome will have no impact on their situation or on the myriad other crises plaguing the country.

The Iranian Resistance has been urging such boycotts for many years, and during last year’s sham parliamentary elections the campaign was more successful than ever, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in the last four-decade. This reinforced the perception of broad alignment between the Iranian Resistance and the general population – something that Tehran had vehemently denied until the time of the 2018 uprising when Khamenei acknowledged that the Iranian Resistance had played a leading role in organizing the protests and promoting the anti-regime slogans.

The Iranian regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement caused more Iranians to be attracted to the Iranian Resistance, namely the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), and nothing has happened in recent years to reverse the trend. The same economic mismanagement persists, and even Iranian officials and state media outlets have begun to acknowledge that it is this, and not the effect of US sanctions, that is the source of most of society’s problems.

Last Friday, the Iranian daily Jahan-e Sanat wrote that “the ruling institutions have created this situation with their rampant corruption and resulting inefficiencies.” Another state-run newspaper, Etemad, issued an explicit warning for the regime on the following day: “If they do not address people’s dissatisfactions and the system’s structural-behavioral shortcomings, the time will come when there will be nothing left of us.”

Such statements acknowledge what many Western policymakers still refuse to: The Iranian people desire regime change and recognize it as the only real solution to their mounting crises.