The protests that have sprung up in cities across Iran over the past week have taken many observers by surprise. It was no secret that the underwhelming and unevenly distributed economic gains from the lifting of international sanctions after the 2015 nuclear deal had led to widespread discontent. But there was no catalyzing event to explain the public demonstrations on display this week, which are rare in Iran.
For now, the protests raise more questions than they answer, beginning with what the protesters want and who—if anyone—is organizing and leading them. The first spontaneous demonstrations focused on economic grievances. But those quickly and mysteriously spread and broadened, to include slogans attacking the regime headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
This week’s protests also lack the leadership figures who helped crystallize the massive demonstrations over the fraudulent 2009 presidential election. And though the death toll has already reached the low teens, with hundreds more arrested, the regime for now seems to be relying on local police to contain the demonstrators, rather than the Basij paramilitary security forces that brutally suppressed the 2009 protests.