After a week of massive protests against the regime that rules Iran, there appears to have been a pause in the demonstrations. Meanwhile, at least 20 people have died, including three security officers, in the unrest that began in Mashhad, the country's second-largest city after Teheran. Hundreds are in detention. Not since 2009, when protests erupted in Teheran after people disputed election results, has the country seen such turmoil. Unlike the 2009 scenes though, this one has often turned violent. What was an uprising against dismal economic conditions has turned into something far more potent. The ayatollahs who run the Middle East's second-largest nation, also a substantial military power, are shaken.
The roots of the current unrest spread in two directions. The first is deteriorating economic conditions; four in 10 of young people in the employment market do not have regular jobs and prices of essentials, such as eggs, have soared lately. The other is spreading distaste for a regime that rules in the name of Islam but some of whose members are perceived to have lined their pockets. Three years ago, social media were agog with reports that a poor 20-year-old woman dating an ayatollah's grandson, soon to be married to another woman, had crashed her date's two-day-old Porsche Boxster in an expensive neighbourhood, killing them both. The accident held up a mirror to the regime's double standards.
The catalyst for the current unrest was the leak of a proposed government budget that indicated the government was planning to end cash subsidies for millions, increase the price of petrol and charge for car registrations, while at the same time spending billions on institutions surrounding the elite clergy. Some reports have fingered the moderate President Hassan Rouhani for leaking the document, suggesting a power struggle with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With about half of Iranians having Instagram accounts, the news spread across the country in hours. While Iran, unsurprisingly, has blamed its detractors for the violence, the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia clearly are not complaining.
It has to be acknowledged that given the scale and spread of the protests, the government does not appear to have responded with overwhelming force. This is prudent, all the more so since nine out of 10 arrested were under the age of 25 and a lot of the unrest was in traditionally conservative areas that typically support the clerical regime. This makes it all the more imperative for the authorities to explore ways to engage with broad sections of the people, and move swiftly to assuage their most pressing concerns. It is time the ayatollahs and mullahs take a leaf from regional rival Saudi Arabia's book, and start to adapt their theocratic regime to one more suited to the aspirations of those born into the modern age.