Protests spread in Iran

The past week saw Iran trying to cope with increasingly widespread and often violent protests-in different cities including the capital Tehran where 200 protestors were said to have been arrested so far. They marked the first mass anti- regime movement since the disputed 2009 elections. Latest reports indicated that nearly 13 people had been killed so far. The protests started in Mashad and spread to other cities including Karaj, Qazvin, Qaemshahr, Dorud and Tuyserkan. There were reports that in provincial towns police stations and military installations were stormed and a seminary attacked. State television showed burnt cars and fires. The government warned that protestors would be dealt with harshly but so far reports suggest that the authorities had been restrained and the Revolutionary Guards had not intervened as they brutally did in 2009, though they remain on alert. What is significant this time is that the protests have been spearheaded by people living in the rural provinces of Iran which have always been the stronghold of the regime. Slogans reminiscent of the anti -Shah revolution have called for “Death to Khamenei the Supreme Leader and President Hassan Rouhani”. Rouhani while endorsing the right of the people to protest and citing the constitution has called in vain for calm and eschewing violence. "We are a free nation, and based on the Constitution and citizenship rights, people are completely free to express their criticism and even their protest," Rouhani was quoted as saying.

The protests were sparked primarily by economic issues particularly unemployment and inflation. Hopes that the nuclear deal and the lifting of international sanctions would ease the economic situation were belied and in the current fiscal year official figures showed that youth unemployment reached 28.8 percent. It is therefore not surprising that many of those arrested are below 25 years of age. In the rural areas there had been increasing anger over the sharp increase in the prices of basic items like eggs and the regime’s wastage of resources on overseas operations like Syria, Hezbollah and others, rather than utilisiing them to improve the domestic situation. The frustration turned to anger at the Supreme Leader and the clerical regime.

It could be a fallacy to equate what is happening with a “revolution”. Most Iranians believe that unlike the 1979 anti Shah revolution and the 2009 protests which were well organized with identifiable leaders, the present outburst is leaderless, born of frustration and organized largely through social networks and messaging applications. Iranian authorities had complained that the messaging application Telegram, used by nearly 40 million Iranians was been used by an exiled journalist Roohallah Zam to incite violence and provide information on times and places for demonstrations. The government had blocked the application and Instagram photo and video sharing app. Telegram said the channel being used by Zam had been blocked. Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB said on its website it had not covered the protests after being told by authorities that “the issue should not be reflected on state radio and television”. It blamed enemy websites and foreign media for trying to exploit economic hardships and the legitimate demands of the people.

The modest number of protestors killed despite their large numbers and violent actions in different cities, suggests that for the moment the President is being given the chance to defuse the situation. So far the elite Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia, and plain-clothed security forces who brutally crushed the 2009 uprising have been held back though Brigadier-General Esmail Kowsari, the Revolutionary Guards’ deputy security chief in Tehran, warned that protesters would face “the nation’s iron fist” if unrest persisted. The Guards answer to the Supreme Leader, who is known to harbor a degree of dislike for the President. Khamenei had repeatedly criticized the government’s economic record and said that the nation was struggling with “high prices, inflation and recession”. He has spoken out against the nuclear deal and Rouhani’s attempts at a rapprochement with the west particularly the Americans. It was therefore not surprising that some Iranian officials suggested that hardliners opposed to the government were behind the protests especially as Mashad, where the protests started, houses Imam Reza’s shrine and a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate supervised by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Mashad is closely monitored by different security and intelligence services, including Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, as well as the Revolutionary Guard Intelligence Unit and the police.

While the protests may have been born of genuine domestic woes of the people, the comments from the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister and Intelligence Minister could tarnish the integrity of the protests necessitating the kind of crackdown that the Revolutionary Guards and Basij are expert at. Donald Trump had tweeted support for the protestors saying “Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!”. Earlier he had tweeted..“Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had praised the protesters but denied any Israeli involvement as did Israel’s Intelligence Minister who said that he could only wish success to the Iranian people in the struggle for freedom and democracy because if the people succeeded in achieving freedom and democracy, many of the threats to Israel and the entire region would disappear. These comments came after President Hassan Rouhani blamed the USA Saudi Arabia and Israel for backing the anti-government protests. Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri , the Revolutionary Guards commander and Deputy Chief Of Staff for Iran’s military, had said that Trump’s support for the protesters indicated planning by the U.S. for launching a new sedition in Iran.

One thing is certain. There is a new generation in Iran that is chafing under the restrictions that the 1979 revolution imposed on society. While President Hassan Rouhani has sought to adopt a moderate course including allowing concerts and easing the punishment for violations of the dress code, for the young employment and personal freedom remain paramount. Even if the present protests fizzle out with the government giving sops like rescinding the decision to raise fuel prices, or the hardliners decide to carry out a crackdown, future protests are bound to occur. As to the present protests one forecast from Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is that they are "the beginning of a big movement" that could spread spread more widely. Will Khamenei and the inheritors of Ayatollah Khomeini’s mantle allow their hold over the country to be ended? Seems unlikely.

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