Protests erupted in Iran in the last week of 2017 and into 2018, due to high prices and economic anxiety, with many criticizing the Islamic Republic's foreign ventures abroad while the public suffers.
"Part of what has happened here is the new government budget is cutting back subsidies for the lower end of the economic spectrum," said Joseph DeThomas, a professor in Penn State's School of International Affairs.
DeThomas worked for 32 years in the U.S. State Department, a year of which he spent living in Iran.
The Iranian government's recent budget cutbacks hurt middle and low-income individuals, DeThomas said, reducing government subsidies for fuel and food staples.
"Those subsidies have been cut as a part of the recent budget," DeThomas said, "while elements of the regime — like the Islamic Foundation and the defense structure — were being [expanded]."
The protests in Iran are thus both economic and political, DeThomas said, as the cost of living for low and middle income Iranians has increased as a result of government policy.
Shirin Bouzari, an Iranian graduate student, recognized that these protests are rooted in the events of the past few years.
"I think it goes back to before the Iran Deal happened," Bouzari (international affairs - graduate) said, "because people had hopes that, by that happening, many sanctions would be lifted. Therefore their life situation, their economic situation, would get better. But, that was not the case."
Bouzari recognized that these protests started in small towns, where economic hardships are exacerbated. Both Bouzari and DeThomas noted that this aspect differs from the 2009 protests, which centered on the capital of Iran, Tehran, not provincial towns.
"Middle class people, they are suffering because they can't afford basic necessities anymore," Bouzari said.
These protests are technically illegal and Iranian security forces have put them down with violence.
"Twenty people dead during the protests," Bouzari said. "About 4,000 people arrested. Among those arrested, reports are showing that two people have been killed while detained — the government has been able to shut down most of [the protests] with the use of force."
Jennifer Gale Loewenstein worked as a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon and the Gaza strip from 1999 to 2010. Now, Loewenstein works as a senior lecturer in Middle Eastern studies and English at Penn State.
"They really weren't lifted well after the Iran agreement," Loewenstein said, referencing U.S. sanctions.
"You hear two things in general: You hear the protests in Iran are a popular uprising against the regime — which is way too general — and you hear that the protests in Iran are inspired by CIA, Mossad, Saudi Arabian forces trying to influence the regime," Loewenstein said. "I think there are little bits of truth to all of that, but to try to understand in that way is way too simplistic."
She also stressed that Iran is complying with the terms of the Iran Deal by not producing nuclear weapons, yet despite that, little economic improvement is happening.
"There is no evidence whatsoever by any organization — international, UN, all of these non-Iranian, non-partisan groups that go in. They go in, and every single time they go in, they come out and say, 'Iran is complying 100 percent,'" Loewenstein said.
DeThomas, Bouzari and Loewenstein were all hesitant to predict an outcome due to these protests, yet all three stressed the resiliency of the regime.
"With the current administration in the U.S., with the administration in Iran, the government, I don't know how things are going to be in the future, or if we are going to see a rapid outcome out of this or change in the economy," Bouzari said.
DeThomas also recognized that many Americans see the protests as an opportunity to insert their influence.
"I know there is a lot of political desire for Americans to want to manage this," DeThomas said. "This is really a question of allowing the Iranian people to decide their fate."