Why you should care
A fuel price hike has sent the republic into chaos — and leaders are clamping down on freedoms.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Protests in recent months have gripped headlines all over the world — Hong Kong, Chile, Barcelona. Now Iran’s joined that list: An economy crippled by U.S. sanctions was the fuel, but a 50 percent rise in gas prices at the end of last week was the match. Now mass protests, which have been raging for more than three days, have reached 100 cities in Iran and seen an estimated 1,000 people arrested. But Iran’s challenge goes far beyond its borders — recent protests in both Iraq and Lebanon also threaten its powerful regional allies. And with legislative elections set for February, the protests could change its political calculus, potentially pushing the more conservative Principlists Grand Coalition into power over current president Hassan Rouhani.
Why does it matter? These are the most intense protests the country has seen since 2017, and many are expecting a similar official crackdown to what happened then. Already the government has largely shut off internet across Iran in an effort to quell organizing power, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took to state TV to call protesters “thugs” and insinuate that they’re linked to foreign governments that are out to get Iran (which wasn’t helped by the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted support for the protests).
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Important neighbors. Iran’s regional hegemony is already being threatened by massive protests in Iraq and Lebanon, which have taken aim at Tehran’s powerful proxies. As of now, Tehran is helping the Iraqi government crush a revolt, which has resulted in the deaths of 330 people since protests began in October. And if recent history is any indication, Iran’s role in arming and training proxies hasn’t been a popular policy among poor Iranians. In 2017, protesters condemned Tehran’s policy of financing proxies abroad, while they struggled at home. And with Iraqis dying by the dozen next door, those same grievances could boil to the surface in Iran today.
Reversal of fortune. The gas price hike, according to Iran’s leaders, is meant to offset increased subsidies for Iran’s poor. So it may not remain unpopular — except with workers who depend on fuel like taxi drivers — when this month’s money from the subsidies starts to make its way to the 75 percent of the population considered “under pressure,” estimated by the government to be 60 million people.
Foreign powers. The plummeting Iranian economy — predicted to drop 9 percent this year, according to the IMF — has U.S. sanctions to thank. President Donald Trump imposed tough new regulations after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Perceptions of foreign interference, whether through sanctions or tweets like Vice President Pompeo’s, have in the past been shown to help Iran’s hard-liners, not protesters or reformers. Authorities, in turn, use them to justify crackdowns. After all, America’s role in the coup against democratically elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 remains a bitter memory for many Iranians. Still, Trump may see Iranian unrest as vindication of his foreign policy.
WHAT TO READ
Why Iran’s Internet Shutdown Is a Stark Warning for Russia, by Zak Doffman in Forbes
“At the beginning of this month, President Vladimir Putin secured his own internet shutdown capability, the so-called sovereign internet that enables his government to disconnect the country from the rest of the world.”
Leaked Iran Cables: Key Findings From Secret Documents, by Karen Zraik in The New York Times
“The leak exposed Iran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing the painstaking efforts of Iranian spies to co-opt Iraqi leaders and infiltrate every aspect of political life.“
WHAT TO WATCH
Protests Erupt in Iran — Here’s Why They’re Different
“The American sanctions are meant to pressure the Iranian government into giving up its nuclear weapons program.”
Watch on CBC News on YouTube:
Iran Protests Spike Over Fuel Price Rise
“Many simply turned off their engines on major highways across the city to show their disappointment.“
Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Sticker shock. Cheap gas is considered a basic human right in Iran, which is one reason this particular price hike has enraged so many. Iran has the world’s fourth largest oil reserves and last year spent $69 billion subsidizing fuel, more than any other country. On any scale, though, gas is still very inexpensive in Iran: It has some of the cheapest gas in the world, with prices estimated at about 50 cents per gallon, or less than one-fourteenth of what Norwegians pay at the pump.