Iran continues to face nationwide protests, interestingly led by women, merchants, workers, and many who have not previously participated, raising risks of social upheaval. But 2023 is the year to watch.
First, these protests are social in nature, representing a broad swatch of the population – half of whom are under 35. They are fundamentally discontent. In a country where protestors are often killed, 300 dead in recent months, revulsion is growing with their treatment and murder, especially of women.
The Iranian “morality police” first killed a young woman for improper headscarf, then denied it and have since continued to target women for arrest. Contrary to the expectation, this appears to have triggered wider disaffection with the regime, which has in turn triggered formal execution.
The odd part about nationwide protests based on revulsion with this kind of inhumanity is that they are less likely to end with economic appeasement, a foreign distraction, or blunt crackdowns. Revulsion with inhumanity only grows with more revolting acts of inhumanity.
Second, Iran’s economy – which was subject to “maximum pressure” by Trump-era sanctions – has continued to slow. In the Trump years, Iran suffered year-over-year negative growth. This reversed Obama-era appeasement, put new pressure on the government, and squeezed Iran’s power to sell oil, oppress its own people, satisfy the military, and push international terror.
Where “planeloads of cash” were delivered by Obama-Biden to Iran’s leaders in exchange for unverifiable (and transparently false) promises of a suspended nuclear program, sanctions bit.
US foreign policy began integrating the Middle East with bilateral peace accords between Arab nations and Israel while Iran remained the outlier. Biden’s team initially restarted failed nuclear talks, imagining ink on paper with Iran meant something, but as protests grew, they stepped back.
With Trump-era sanctions still in place, the Iranian economy is slowing at a faster rate than many thought possible. Thus, while Biden’s first two years offered hope to Iran’s repressive government, the last two offer no hope.
Iran’s economy reflects this reality. Iran’s economy has continued to crater, early high estimates of eight percent growth falling back to a 2.2 percent and falling for 2023. Meantime, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) puts Iran’s estimated inflation in 2023 at 40 percent – and rising.
The combination is likely to be a pincer, squeezing Iran’s government on everything from nuclear weapons development and military salaries to terror finance and employment.
Iran’s people are smart, remarkably pro-Western in many ways, not interested in continued religious, social – or economic persecution. They are aware that sanctions are intended to pressure the government, and many are for the effort.
What is most remarkable is the potential confluence – like two rivers coming together – of current trends. Revulsion with the Iran’s radical Islamic theocracy crackdown, punishing women and protestors with death, may combine with a sudden jump in unemployment, inflation, and hard times.
Iran’s leadership is aging fast, demographic data not promising, and indicia of social unrest growing. What this means – since none of us can predict the future – is rising uncertainty. Just as things changed suddenly in the late 1970s, things could change suddenly now.
What we do know is that Iran is reeling under the sudden, oddly bipartisan – since Biden has no choice – reality of US sanctions staying in place, no fresh US money, and growing solidarity among its adversaries.
Iran still counts Russia and China as allies, if peripherally, with reservations, and simply for the self-interest of these two. But even as Russia flies Iranian drones against Ukraine, and China looks for oil in the Middle East, Iran is in retrograde.
These protests are an important mark in time – a potential turning point. If combined in 2023 with a sudden shift away from faith in an ignoble, inhumane, evil government – one that has long oppressed its people, tormented the region, and terrorized the world – we could see some unpredicted change.
Totalitarian governments are hard to shift, reform, and – in the extreme – overturn. But movements “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” can also be powerful, sometimes hard to put down. Iran is in the midst of social, economic, and geopolitical change, and 2023 is the year light could replace darkness. We will see – but watch Iran in 2023.