Don’t Mistake the Iran Fuel Protests for Imminent Regime Collapse

Iranians are in the streets across the country to protest a fuel price hike. Iranian gasoline has traditionally been among the cheapest in the world, thanks in large part to generous government subsidies. The government announced this week, suddenly and without prior public discussion, that it would be reducing these subsidies and imposing rationing measures on all fuel purchases.

Prices will increase from 10,000 rials, or about 9 cents, per liter to 15,000 rials (~13 cents) for the first sixty liters purchases each month. Any additional fuel purchased beyond that limit will cost double that. Iranians use fuel cards — first introduced in 2007 — to track their purchases and prevent gasoline smuggling.

Naturally, people are upset about this development. Iranians consume gasoline at extremely high rates, and any price hike, even a nominally small one, will have a significant impact on segments of the population already strained by economic hardship. The Rouhani administration, for its part, is claiming that the price hike is an effort to raise funds to redirect additional subsidies to the poorest citizens.

Videos posted on social media show chaotic demonstrations taking place across Iran, ranging from blocking traffic to burning buildings. Unconfirmed reports indicate some protesters have been shot by security forces in Shiraz, Isfahan, and elsewhere.

While the images coming out of Iran right now are undoubtedly dramatic, this shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the stirrings of revolution. These protests are spontaneous, leaderless, and, for the most part, peaceful. They are also likely to be temporary. The government knows this, and if past behavior is any indication of future performance, Iranian leadership will likely try to wait out the demonstrators rather than enact large-scale violent crackdowns. (To be clear, violence will certainly result from these protests, as it appears it already has, but given the scale, it looks to be more sporadic than systematic.) There are also reports of mass cellular network outages in Iran, which has been a common government tactic to stifle public communication and organizing during past demonstrations.

Absent a stable leadership structure and/or sources of funding, not to mention public appetite for further political destabilization, there isn’t much risk of these protests morphing into revolutionary activity. Time is on the government’s side here.

It’s important that more casual observers be prepared for and not be taken in by the inevitable claims from regime change advocates that these protests are representative of imminent government collapse. This is the message coming out of the State Department right now. The White House may soon follow, although they might be preoccupied with other pressing matters at the moment. Like watering a plant and giving it plenty of sunlight, these efforts feed and grow a preferred narrative about the efficacy of sanctions and the viability of the Islamic Republic. But unless these claims are paired with action, they will not have a material effect on the outcome.

Public dissatisfaction with the Iranian government and its many flaws is very real and worthy of informed discussion, but a four-cent fuel increase is not going to lead to the end of the Islamic Republic. Don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

Update [12/1/19]: Well, it turns out I was wrong about the government trying to wait this one out rather than enact a crackdown. Reports are still inconclusive, but it seems that at least several hundred protesters have been killed by security forces in various cities around the country. It’s not clear what distinguished this particular round of protests from previous ones such that it required a more violent response, nor is it readily apparent what this means for the political trajectory of the country. We’ll likely get some indication of the latter soon as the country gears up for its next round of parliamentary elections (presently scheduled for February 2020). I don’t think the repression means much in terms of regime stability, nor is it likely to boost the public’s appetite for further revolutionary activity. As always, the Islamic Republic will continue stumbling along, taking two steps backward for every tentative one forward.

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