Inside Story

Iran: why it’s been different this time

The latest protests reveal rising discontent outside the major cities

R. Tousi 4 January 2018 1105 words

Protesters in Dorud, western Iran, on 30 December. SalamPix/Abaca/AAP Image

The demonstrations in Iran over the past week, which began as a protest against corruption and price hikes, developed into sweeping attacks on the nation’s political class. Twitter has been teeming with videos of protesters voicing their anger against everyone from reformist president Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s conservative supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The rallies have startled Iran’s political elite, and even left many Iranians baffled.

As the Iranian tweeter @leilaakhoda writes, “The cities that have been at the top of the news in recent days have been ignored in the media for decades. Many are asking… Where is Khashmer? Where is Izeh? Where is Abhar? Where is Tuyserkan?” Each is a small to medium city some distance from the largest metropolitan centres. “Not being a part of the mass media means that you don’t have a share in the economy or politics,” @leilaakhoda continues. “It means you are powerless to decide.” Another voice on Twitter, @elshirzad, reminds her followers that “Tuyserkan had one of the lowest voter participations in the presidential election.”

Rouhani’s re-election as president last May, with a 72 per cent voter turnout, was a victory for moderates. But his promise to improve living standards, fight corruption and open Iran up to the world have not been matched by reality. Unemployment is 12.4 per cent and rising, and foreign investors remain wary of doing business with Iran, dreading unilateral sanctions by US president Donald Trump. According to a BBC Persian analysis, Iranians are 15 per cent poorer than they were a decade ago. These economic strains — some self-inflicted, some imposed from outside — have had a particular impact on the neighbourhoods where many of the current protests erupted.

“People are asking, where is Izeh?” tweets @mehranmoghadam1. “The meaning of this movement is the question that is asked. The Izeh that we don’t know has become our voice, the invisible are becoming visible. This movement is our inner voice.” It would be a big leap to describe these hitherto sporadic and leaderless protests as a “movement,” if not for the fact that we have recently witnessed working-class movements upsetting the political order in the United States and Europe. Wealth inequality has climbed to the point that the “richest 1 per cent own half the world’s wealth.” Iran has not been immune to global trends — the trends that produced Brexit, President Trump, and an anti-immigrant backlash — which it has experienced on top of years of sanctions, corruption and economic mismanagement.

For more than thirty years, Iran has hosted almost a million documented and at least as many undocumented refugees. Many left Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion and during the years of Taliban rule. Many more have arrived since then, having escaped attacks by Islamic State, or ISIS, forces. Around 16 per cent of these refugees are concentrated in the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi, where the riots began.

President Trump has taken to Twitter to offer his support for the protesters. “The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change,” he has tweeted, “and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most…” This sentiment echoes his longstanding view that Iran is the exporter of “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” which many commentators view as a commitment to regime change. The US is not alone in its hopes for a weakening, or even the demise, of the Iranian regime. Iran’s regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, share this enmity for Iran’s growing influence in the region.

In its regional assertiveness, Iran has been greatly aided by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled Tehran’s longstanding adversary Saddam Hussein. Since then, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen have failed to dent Tehran’s influence. Despite rising costs and casualties, polls suggest that the Iranian public continues to strongly support military involvement in Syria, which is seen as a stand against the savage forces of ISIS. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asserted that if ISIS is not stopped in Syria then Iranians will have to fight its forces inside Iran.

Yet the recent protests have seen angry chants of “Not Gaza, not Lebanon” against Iran’s costly entanglements abroad in the face of growing hardships at home. Trump has tried to engage with these sentiments by tweeting about the Iranian regime’s “corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad.”

It is hard to tell if such rhetoric resonates with the protesters. After all, it is Trump who has imposed a ban on all Iranian citizens attempting to visit the United States. He is the one who has threatened to “tear up” the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which heralded better living standards for ordinary Iranians and was celebrated on Iran’s streets. It’s very hard to believe that Iranians could ever see President Trump as an ally.

Dating back to the early twentieth century, successive generations of Iranians have endeavoured to bring about political change. During Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906, hopes of democracy were dashed and authoritarian rule was implemented with the help of foreign powers. Two generations later, the democratically elected government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh was finished off in a coup backed by the United States and Britain.

Nationwide student protests in July 1999 saw a new generation demanding civil rights. Following the contested presidential election in June 2009, Iran faced the largest street protests in the history of the Islamic republic. The brutal crackdown and mass arrests confirmed the establishment’s ambition to exercise complete control.

But the current protests are unlike anything Iran has experienced before. These are not the educated elite of 1906 fighting for the establishment of the first parliamentary rule in the Middle East, nor the idealists of the 1950s who struggled for democracy and national sovereignty. In 1999 the children of the revolution occupied campuses in support of freedom of speech following the closure of a newspaper; in 2009, millions of marchers in big city centres chanted, “Where is my vote?” after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner of the presidential race. The latest protests, launched in the deprived neighbourhoods of provincial towns, reflect anger at price rises and the corruption of the political elite, and call for jobs and improved living standards.

By Wednesday, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, had declared that the “sedition” had been crushed. The media report an estimated twenty-one people killed and hundreds arrested. The recent protests have yet again revealed deep social faultlines that will continue to challenge the establishment’s ambition to maintain its absolute grip. ●