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Iran's oil sector unfazed by protests

A lack of clarity about the origins and aims of the country's demonstrations make predictions for their outcome difficult. But, for now, the energy industry is unscathed

In all the confusion in Iran, with demonstrations and clashes in cities and towns across the country, one thing at least is clear: thus far, the energy sector is operating normally. Neither the production nor the export of oil and natural gas has been affected. "Everything is going normally," an Iranian energy source told Reuters.

But that's not to say that they won't be at some stage. This is the point. No one can say with any certainty how the current waves of street unrest will develop because there's no central theme to the protests.

It's a mistake to compare in general terms what's happening in Iran to the events of the Arab spring uprisings. For there have been nothing like the mass demonstrations witnessed in Cairo and other Arab cities at that time.

Yet there are some similarities. The demonstrations in Iran, like those in the Arab world, appear to be spontaneous expressions of discontent over a range of issues—from difficult economic circumstances, to high-level corruption, to condemnation of the ruling clergy establishment and calls for the return of the shah. Young Iranians, in particular, are fed up with the remote and authoritarian attitude of the country's rulers. Yet they can't agree on a system to replace the current one.

Another similarity with the Arab experience is the fact that there's no senior political figure aligning himself with the protests. Not yet, at any rate. This is in large part because the protests are so diverse in nature. Again, it's possible that the unrest will coalesce around a central theme of, say, demanding a change of leadership or change of regime. Or they could be suppressed by brutal use of force. Already the number of dead is in double figures, while hundreds have been arrested.

All the while, predictably, Iran's enemies—notably the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia—are relishing the discomfort of the Tehran authorities as they agonise over how to respond to the protests. One Saudi editorial said the world was "watching what's happening in Iran and awaiting the results of the popular movement", adding: "The hope is that the Iranian people can find a way out of the dark tunnel" created by the Islamic regime.

But regime change, even if it were to happen, is a distant prospect. At present, Iranians can only live day by day, waiting for the picture to become clearer. One sure indicator of the crisis deepening in a serious way would be if the protests disrupted Iran's energy sector.

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