Iran Protest Update

We just concluded a Council on Foreign Relations phone briefing on events in Iran. The Council's Philip Gordon and Ray Takeyh, prominent foreign policy and Middle East analysts, provided a few interesting observations worth considering.

Most protests of this nature arise from economic and not political concerns. This is certainly the case on the ground in Iran today. Takeyh offered that a major difference now than in past Iranian uprisings, that were viciously silenced, however, is that many of these protesters are from the poor and working class or what he calls "the backbone of the regime." "They (the regime) appear to have lost one of their most important constituents," Takeyh added.

Interestingly, Takeyh said Iran's religious despots are using "law enforcement" to attempt to quell the protests because they fear that Revolutionary Guard conscripts would not be willing to attack protesters "who come from the same neighborhoods and the same backgrounds." The Guard has previously been quite pleased to bash the heads of students, intelligentsia and other imagined forms of educated elites. After all, doing so is right out of every authoritarian's handbook. Make no mistake, however, in that some students are involved in these current protests, too.

Yes, authoritarians are generally correct in understanding that economic protests can quickly become political uprisings if they are not quashed - definitively and decidedly. In this case, however it seems that Iran is running a calculated risk right now because it understands the downside of asking working-class "soldiers" to kill their own people. Eventually, of course, the regime may feel they have no choice than to sic the Guard on their own people. Stay tuned.

The economic motivations igniting these protests are abundantly clear. Unemployment is at 13 percent nationally in Iran, according to Gordon, and hovering at a powder-keg 40 percent for young people. Iranians have been suffering double-digit inflation for many years now, as well. Of course, the chief catalyst is corruption. The holy rollers running Iran are - and have been since 1979 - endemically corrupt. The people see in Gordon's words that their leaders seem to "have plenty of money to spend on themselves, especially abroad," and on expensive foreign interventions in Syria and elsewhere.

None of this is surprising. Some of us have long maintained that the Iran mess will take at least 50 years to resolve, after the catastrophic events of 1979. The current protests may be one of many important steps along the way, though it will not be a determinative one. Still, the mullahs certainly do have a new and well-deserved worry on their hands. Perhaps working-class people are finally sick of the rich getting richer - and they are not alone in that sentiment - and are trying to hold their rulers accountable for running a kleptocracy that refuses to invest in its people and in its future.

January 1st protest photo courtesy of Sipa via AP Images