The protests that began in Iran two weeks ago are the most significant unrest in the country since 2009 and could pose a significant threat to the regime. Unlike in 2009, when the regime repressed urban middle class protesters outraged by then-President Ahmadinejad’s questionable election victory, these protests appear to be expressions by a wide swath of Iranians frustrated with the Islamic Republic’s shortcomings. Iranians appear fed up with chronic economic weakness, generous support for the country’s regional proxies (Hezbollah, Assad, Hamas, etc), unmet reform promises from moderate politicians, and out of touch conservative clerics. This focus on fundamental governance issues more closely resembles the 2011 Arab Spring protests, when Tunisians, Egyptians, and others in the region took to the streets with simple yet broad messages about political freedom and better governance.
How is 2018 different than 2009?
In 2009, protests were concentrated in Tehran and a few other large cities. As a result, the regime was able to effectively deploy police and militias to violently suppress protests and make mass arrests. Concurrently, the regime’s propaganda machine convinced the bulk of Iranians that foreign enemies were behind these relatively well-off urbanite protesters. The regime quelled the protests within weeks.
This time, however, the regime has no such geographic or demographic advantages. While there have been protests in the more cosmopolitan cities of Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, and Shiraz, protests have also occurred in more religious cities like Qom and Mashhad, and in dozens of smaller cities, where people are historically most supportive of the Islamic Republic’s conservatism. This geographic diffuseness and participation of normally conservative regions makes deploying security forces to suppress the protests more operationally challenging and politically fraught.
- Drawing on protests data aggregated from Twitter where the location and time of a protest took place is provided, there appears to have been one or more protests in at least 71 different cities and towns between 28 December 2017 and 6 January 2018.
- In all, half of the 155 recorded protests have occurred in cities with populations of less than 350,000.
- A third of the cities that have had protests are in provinces where conservatives won an average of more than 50 percent of the vote in the last two presidential elections (despite Rouhani, the sole moderate candidate, winning both overall with 51 and 57 percent, respectively).
But even if these protests are different in meaningful ways from those in 2009, do they pose a threat to Iranian regime? Given its resilience in the face of nearly four decades of threats, including wars, sanctions, threat of attack, regional instability, and occasional domestic ethnic and political unrest, the Islamic Republic would appear to be a stable institution. But the same was assumed about most Arab regimes in the run-up to 2011.
Tunisia in December 2010, however, is a noteworthy outlier on this list.
So is 2018 like 2011?
Using Koto’s Analogy Engine (KAE), a tool that allows users to select data features about one country and looks for similarities across all other countries over the past several decades, we can quantitatively identify examples of countries that resemble present-day Iran. To analogize on present day Iran, we used data features that reflect the main issues that protesters have highlighted and one key variable useful in assessing protest risk:
- GDP growth: Protesters regularly have assailed the country’s poor economic conditions, despite the recent repeal of many economic sanctions.
- Type of government: Many protests have included slogans against the Islamic Republic and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
- Level of corruption: Protesters have physically attacked religious institutions and denounced clerics for their corrupt acquisition of wealth.
- Level of Democracy: Protesters have frequently demanded more democracy and improved human rights.
- Percentage of population living in urban areas: Given that protests in Iran and elsewhere typically occur in cities, analogizing among countries with similar urbanization rates is a useful data point.
Using just these five features--and not inputting any data about protests or regime change--the top five results are as follows:
Malaysia, a stable country despite periodic social unrest, appears twice, suggesting there is a historical country analogous to Iran that did not experience a government collapse. Similarly, Tunisia in 1999 was a highly stable autocracy that experienced very little social unrest. In 1996, Croatia had largely extricated itself from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and would become progressively more stable and democratic in the following years. Tunisia in December 2010, however, is a noteworthy outlier on this list.
- On 17 December 2010, protests began in the small central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid (population 48,000) following the police mistreatment of a fruit seller (and his subsequent self-immolation) and spread across the country. Against peaceful mass protests with simple straightforward slogans telling the president to “get out,” the Tunisian authorities quickly lost control and within a month President Zine El-Abidane Ben Ali, who had ruled the country since 1987 fled the country.
This KAE finding does not necessarily forecast a coming Persian Spring, but the Tunisia analogy does suggest that the Iranian regime could come under significant pressure. If they fail to quell the unrest in the coming weeks, the regime may have to either make concessions that meaningfully alter the Islamic Republic’s political and economic system--and risk a regime unraveling as in Tunisia--or deploy maximal violence to suppress them.
- In 2011, the government in Tunisia (and Egypt shortly thereafter) responded to protests with a combination of violence and political concessions, but this only emboldened protesters and led some regime supporters to waver. So far the Iranian regime has responded only with limited violence and growing arrests.
- Mass violence is what Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime chose when it faced protests in 2011 and it appears to have ultimately saved the regime though destroying the country in the process. Persian-language social media’s trending hashtags “#Will will be Tunisia” and “#We will not be Syria” aptly represents the choice the clerics may have to make.
Gathering Iranian protest data from Twitter is problematic since the service itself is banned in Iran, though more technically proficient Iranians are able to access it. For this analysis, the data set assembled by Koto appeared to be consistent with other efforts to track protests though specific protests may be doubled counted or missed. ↩︎