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After More Than a Thousand Arrests, Protests Subside in Iran
The wave of popular protests in Iran appear to be subsiding after Iranian authorities deployed security forces in urban areas across the country this past week. The Iranian parliament convened a special session on Sunday to address the unrest, and the Revolutionary Guard issued a statement saying that “tens of thousands of Basij forces, police and the Intelligence Ministry have broken down” the protests. In addition to the deployment of security forces, the government’s crackdown has included mobilizing supporters in pro-government counterprotests, curtailing access to the Internet, and attempting to discredit protesters with accusations of foreign support by the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others. More than 1,000 people have been arrested and at least 21 people killed since the rallies started on December 28. Most of those arrested are Iranian youths, under the age of 25, who have been disproportionately affected by the country’s growing unemployment rate. As the street protests have died down, new rallies have begun outside of Evin Prison as family members call for the release of loved ones.
The current flurry of protests have been hard to pin down and analyze. Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews, told The Guardian that they may have initially started with the support of hardline politicians trying to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government, but they quickly grew out of control. As the protests grew in size, they also accumulated new grievances. They may have started out focused on unemployment and rising prices, but quickly grew to include opposition to corruption and the military’s adventurist policies in the region. There was apparently even a smattering of monarchists at some of the rallies chanting slogans in support of the ousted shah. Laura Secor wrote for the New York Times that all these factors are interconnected and boil down to popular frustration with the government’s lack of accountability and reliance on the security services. Gissou Nia, writing in Politico, suggests these frustrations ring especially true among Iran’s marginalized rural and ethnic-minority populations, who built the momentum of the protests.
The abrupt surge of protests came as a surprise to many analysts, and has prompted talk of a new Iranian “revolution” from some quarters—including the U.S. government. In an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, Vice President Mike Pence expressed his hope that the protests would lead to regime change in Tehran and, citing a tweet from the president, wrote that the United States will “provide assistance” to the protesters “in the days ahead.” (Almost a week later, the administration has given no further information about what that assistance might be.)
It’s astonishing how quickly some analysts are forgetting recent history. The Arab Spring is not dead; it’s not even past. Just yesterday, a Tunisian activist was killed in yet another round of economic protests in that country. There are substantive reasons why the protests that began seven years ago succeeded in ousting dictators in some countries—including Tunisia—but not others. As noted in the Ticker last week, the current protests in Iran lack the support of any faction of Iran’s political elite. Without defections from the government’s ruling coalition, there is little chance of sweeping change. In a post for Monkey Cage Blog on the lessons of the Arab Spring, Marc Lynch observes that “[t]he choices of the military are usually decisive.” Daniel Serwer, writing on Peacefare, points to other factors limiting the protests’ effectiveness: they are big, but not big enough; they are undisciplined and have lapsed into violence; and accusations of foreign involvement seem plausible, even if they’re not true. Farideh Farhi, on NPR, also noted the relative absence of middle-class protesters and an organized leadership.
The protests won’t usher in a new regime, but as Dan Byman wrote for Lawfare last week, they do underscore the government’s weakness, particularly on foreign policy. Now that they are winding down, President Rouhani is trying to shift the narrative to turn the protests against his hardline opponents. On Monday, he called for the restoration of access to social media apps and said that the protests were a rejection of the conservatism of the old guard. “We cannot pick a lifestyle and tell two generations after us to live like that. It is impossible... The views of the young generation about life and the world is different than ours,” he said. It’s a good point, but it will be a tough sell for Rouhani to convince the public that he, at 69 years old and after almost four decades in politics, can credibly address the frustrations of Iran’s youth demographic.
Royal Infighting over Austerity Measures in Saudi Arabia
As popular protests ebbed in Iran this week, Saudi Arabia faced a different kind of protest—one from within the royal family. Eleven princes were arrested after they refused to pay their water and electricity bills, which will no longer be paid by the state under a new policy. That royals will now be responsible for their own utilities is part of a raft of new economic reforms going into effect, including a new 5 percent value-added tax on a wide range of commercial goods.
The Saudi public has also been frustrated by the new policies, and King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) have already reversed a plan to cut off state subsidies after complaints from the public online. After only a week, the government restored more than $13 billion in stipends to public-sector workers and members of the Saudi military. The Saudi leadership has used the stipends to ward off public discontent before, including during the Arab Spring in 2011. But it’s a bad sign for the government’s efforts to modernize the kingdom’s economy.
For now, the king and crown prince are holding firm on the cuts to spending on the royal family. The 11 princes who declined to pay their utility bills are now being held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh—where MBS has been holding other members of the royal family incarcerated since November—after they staged a sit-in at a palace and also demanded compensation for the 2016 execution of Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer, who was convicted for committing murder. MBS is trying to consolidate his power before his accession to the throne, but his mercurial rise and political assertiveness have rankled some members of the royal family. As Reuters reported in November, the series of corruption arrests a couple months ago occurred “when he [MBS] realized more relatives opposed him becoming king than he had thought.” That discontent among MBS’ rivals clearly continues, but if their best course of action is a sit-in and refusing to pay their utility bills, MBS’ efforts to constrain their ability to threaten him appear to be working.
Trump Administration Weighs Cuts to Palestinians, U.N. Agencies
Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Middle East is back on, after being postponed indefinitely last month after the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the ensuing international condemnation at the United Nations. Pence will visit Egypt, Jordan, and Israel from January 19-23. But Pence’s trip to Jerusalem will not be a victory lap, as the Trump administration had hoped. Instead, his visit will come at a tense moment as Washington tries to get a handle back on the peace process.
As the fallout from the Jerusalem recognition continues, parts of the Trump administration are going further to threaten to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority and U.N. agencies that work in the West Bank. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is pushing hard to punish any opposition to the Jerusalem decision, and in the internal debate within the administration, she appears to be winning. Foreign Policy reports that, despite concerns about cutting off aid to the Palestinians, the State Department is withholding $100 million in funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that was expected to be delivered on January 1. The agency provides support to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, but also operates in other disaster and war-torn countries, including in Syria and the diaspora from that country’s civil war. Hundreds of millions more aid dollars are also potentially on the chopping block. On January 2, President Trump tweeted his support for punitive aid cuts to the Palestinians, saying that “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue… ...peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
The reception to the Trump administration’s shift to using aid to the Palestinian Authority as a tool to strongarm the Palestinians to the negotiating table has been lukewarm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that UNRWA should be dismantled—something he has argued before—but was more cautious regarding other aid cuts. Reuters suggested that his comments were an attempt to thread the needle between supporting his government’s strong ally in Washington while also expressing reservations about the extent of the Trump administration’s plans. Other Israeli experts were more outspoken about their concerns. “There are many problems with @UNRWA, but cutting financial support to the organization hurts the weakest members of Palestinian society and is unlikely to bring the Palestinian Authority to the table,” former IDF spokesman Peter Lerner tweeted. “The refugee camps have historically been hotbeds for terrorist activities, weakening this population will only lead to more extremism and violence. This will not contribute to security or stability in the region.”
Rather than push the Palestinians back to the table, the Trump administration’s policies continue to backfire. Palestinian politicians are reportedly doubling down on their campaign to receive international recognition. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah is lobbying Norway to join the 136 countries that have recognized Palestine as a state. As Hussein Ibish wrote last month for The National, the Trump administration’s policies are continuing to alienate U.S. partners in the peace process while enabling “a cynical field day” from obstructionists like Turkey. And it’s still unclear how the Trump administration will go—and how far they’ll drive away their dwindling number of friends in the international community.