•Iran is facing social unrest since 2018 when the economical situation deterred due to international sanctions the country faced.
•March 2018, Interior Ministry report reveals Iran is under threat of further unrest if government does not address social, political and economic grievances.
•Repression of December 2017-January 2018 anti-regime activists fuelling anti-government sentiment and increasing the likelihood of further unrest.
• 2018 Spring demonstrations and labour strikes in Isfahan, Tehran, Ahwaz, Kerman and Khuzestan driven by discontent and anger with government policies.
•Trump administration compounded the situation when it refused extension of sanctions proposed by Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and officially withdraw from JCPOA to pursue the denuclearization agenda on it's on.
•Consequences of US withdrawal were shortly seen in a Anti-American speech and behaviour, there was an US flag burned in Iran's Parliament. • Despite these actions, the powers part of the agreement hold a positive view upon the agreements progress and China took lead of negotiations after the US withdrawal.
Socio-Economic effects sensed from the sanctions
Iranian Interior Minister Abdul Reza Rahmani Fazli warned that Iran could see another round of nationwide anti-government demonstrations similar or potentially worse than what occurred in December 2017 and January 2018. Rahmani Fazli cited a recent report produced by the Interior Ministry’s security council that was then presented to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the heads of the Armed Forces and the National Security Council.
The report identified two groups of unrest risk factors, including (1) social, political and economic discontent, and (2) “societal transformations”. Rahmani Fazli expanded on the second set of factors by alluding to the fact that a younger generation of Iranians are disconnected from the ideological roots of the 1979 revolution. He acknowledged that nearly four decades since that historic event there have been fundamental paradigm shifts in people’s “ideologies, beliefs, thoughts and preferences” that have largely been ignored by the country’s leadership. Tangible examples of these shifts can be seen in the lifestyle of Iranians, largely influenced by a more progressive and outward-looking view of the world and Iran’s place in it.
The minister later acknowledged that the December-to-January uprising was to a large extent spontaneous and amorphous, and this from a security risk perspective, is difficult to systematically detect, monitor and keep in check. It also contradicts official government claims that the unrest was organised by the France-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—specifically its People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI). Both organisations have been critical of how the Iranian government handled the unrest, warning that suppression and arrests worked in quelling them, but only served to fuel public resentment and anger. The PMOI has called on its supporters to channel their anger for renewed anti-government unrest to coincide with the Iranian New Year of Nowruz (March 2018).
While this is a small sample size of demonstrations, it potentially portends to greater levels or more frequent unrest. There are unique and nuanced grievances and drivers for each, but they all can be grouped under some broad themes, particularly discontent with social, political and economic conditions and the leaders, including conservatives, moderates and reformists, responsible for those conditions.
The December-January unrest saw activists chanting slogans against conservatives and reformists, and this was significant as it solidified the shift towards a more populist, anti-establishment agenda. While this agenda has existed for some time, the unrest in more than 100 cities and towns served as a sobering reminder to the Iranian leadership that they are suffering from a crisis of public confidence and trust. Even Rouhani’s closest economic advisor, Masoud Nili, warned of a repeat of the December and January unrest, but potentially on a larger and sustained scale.
US's withdrawal from JCPOA and who's taking lead in negotiations
One critical development that compounded the situation is the US’s position on sanctions relief. President Donald Trump reluctantly signed an extension on the relief in January but he refused its renewal and, moreover, pushed the US's withdrawal from the agreement which officially took place on 8 May 2018. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US, UK, China, France, Germany and Russia agreed to relax sanctions if Iran halted its nuclear programme. Trump has long been opposed to the JCPOA and his appointment of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State aligns the State Department’s position with that of the president’s. Pompeo is critical of the deal, but he realises its importance in keeping Iran’s nuclear development in check.
Trump's decision to re-impose sanctions and withdraw from the JCPOA, lead the public’s anger to shift towards the Iranian regime as a result of trade embargoes that are a heavy harm on Iran's economy. The degree that renewed sanctions drive unrest is uncertain as many of the protest risk factors are strongly based on internal misgovernment. Iran could further retaliate against the US and allies, and this could have regional security implications, particularly in states where Iran is influencing and fomenting instability and insecurity, such as in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, among others. This is also a source of grievance in Iran as many view the government’s interventionist forays as a drain on the economy. With mounting internal and domestic pressure, the Iranian regime will be forced to navigate carefully through some potentially destabilising challenges in the short to medium term outlook.
Although US decision to withdraw from JCPOA created stir, all other powers remained positive over the agreement's progress and we saw China taking a leadership role in the negotiations.