Iran shaken from within

An­gry demon­stra­tions are big­gest since 2009 Weak econ­omy and food price rises blamed

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Saeed Ka­mali De­hghan

A striking im­age, taken by an am­a­teur photographer on a smart­phone, shows a young wo­man in Tehran tak­ing off her hi­jab, perch­ing on a tele­coms box, and hold­ing her head­scarf aloft on a stick.

It may look as if she is wav­ing a white flag of truce, but given her ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion, in a coun­try where wear­ing the hi­jab is oblig­a­tory for women, it is a small – yet au­da­cious – act of re­sis­tance, em­body­ing the as­pi­ra­tion of a young na­tion frus­trated with eco­nomic griev­ances but also a lack of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal free­dom.

The photo sur­faced last week as a new wave of anti-regime protests that be­gan over eco­nomic is­sues in north-eastern Iran spread across the coun­try in a way no­body an­tic­i­pated. Hav­ing taken on a po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion of huge scale, those protests – which con­tin­ued with in­creas­ing vi­o­lence this week – pose the big­gest chal­lenge to Tehran’s lead­er­ship since the 2009 un­rest, shak­ing the foun­da­tions of the Is­lamic Repub­lic.

The ge­o­graph­i­cal scale of un­rest in prov­inces, and the harsh­ness of the slo­gans chanted, are un­prece­dented since the 1979 revo­lu­tion. They have drawn par­al­lels to the months of antigov­ern­ment un­rest after the dis­puted 2009 elec­tion, which gave Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad a sec­ond term in of­fice amid a bloody crack­down.

But the new protests, la­belled by many on Twit­ter as Eteraz-e-omomi (or “the gen­eral strike” in Farsi) are pos­ing more ques­tions than an­swers, puz­zling ob­servers about how it all started, why it spread so quickly, and what it means for Iran’s fu­ture. There are also big dif­fer­ences from the tur­bu­lence eight years ago.

A rel­a­tively small protest last Thursday in Mash­had, Iran’s sec­ond­largest city and the main base for op­po­nents of mod­er­ate pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, un­ex­pect­edly gave impetus to a wave of spon­ta­neous protests spread­ing across prov­inces. A source close to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said Rouhani’s ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves the first protests were or­gan­ised by his op­po­nents, most notably sup­port­ers of his cam­paign ri­val, the hard­line cleric Ebrahim Raisi. “Death to Rouhani” were among the first chants in Mash­had, but the sit­u­a­tion soon got out of con­trol with peo­ple chant­ing anti-regime slo­gans such as “death to the dic­ta­tor”, de­nounc­ing the lead­er­ship of the supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei.

Within a day the protests spread to Ker­man­shah in the west of Iran, Is­fa­han in the cen­tre, Rasht in the north, and even Qom, the hot­bed of cler­ics, as well as other cities such as Sari, Hamedan and Qazvin. As the protests grew big­ger, anti-regime demon­stra­tions were held in Tehran but also in Shahr-e-Kord, Ban­dar Ab­bas, Izeh, Arak, Zan­jan, Ab­har, Doroud, Khor­ram­abad, Ah­vaz, Karaj and Tonek­abon. By Tues­day, at least 21 peo­ple were es­ti­mated to have died in clashes be­tween pro­test­ers and se­cu­rity forces.

Mo­ham­mad-Taghi Kar­roubi, son of an op­po­si­tion leader un­der house ar­rest,

Me­hdi Kar­roubi, said new demon­stra­tions show that, de­spite the crack­down in 2009, the de­sire for protest has re­mained. “In­stead of blam­ing for­eign pow­ers and say­ing that they are in­cit­ing the protests, the es­tab­lish­ment has to ac­knowl­edge that there is a base for protest within Iran,” he said.

Kar­roubi said that, after Rouhani won a land­slide vic­tory with the sup­port of re­formists, his un­ex­pected con­ser­va­tive turn since had dis­ap­pointed his base. “It’s al­ways been the re­formist youth who pumped hope in­side the coun­try and they’re silent now.”

Se­nior fig­ures in the re­formist camp, who do not back regime

change, and even many sup­port­ers of the Green move­ment, which arose after the 2009 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, are un­com­fort­able with some of the slo­gans, such as those in sup­port of monar­chy. Com­pared with 2009, the new protests ap­pear to lack any spe­cific or­gan­i­sa­tion, which many see as an ad­van­tage be­cause the state can­not eas­ily crack down on them by ar­rest­ing a leader, and oth­ers as a dis­ad­van­tage be­cause they don’t have a clear strat­egy for the next step.

While the mid­dle class and the elites were be­hind the 2009 protests, this lat­est wave ap­pears to be led by the work­ing class, most af­fected by the weak econ­omy and a jump in food prices.

“It’s a jigsaw puz­zle,” said one com­men­ta­tor, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied. “There might be other rea­sons at play too, such as in­ter­nal ri­val­ries

be­tween dif­fer­ent fac­tions, es­pe­cially as Khamenei be­comes older and the suc­ces­sion race be­comes se­ri­ous.”

In con­trast to cov­er­age of the 2009 protests, a num­ber of state news agen­cies and local news­pa­pers re­ported on the re­cent protests. Last Sun­day night, the state-run news­pa­per Iran was among the first to pub­lish im­ages of protests in Tehran. Ear­lier in the day, con­ser­va­tive cleric Gho­lam­reza Mes­bahi-Moghadam said the au­thor­i­ties should lis­ten to the pro­test­ers and al­low gath­er­ings, and state TV must cover the demon­stra­tions.

Mo­ham­mad Marandi, a Tehran Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor, blamed the Rouhani gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic pol­icy for the protests: “I think per­haps the gov­ern­ment pol­icy seems to some as lean­ing to­wards lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the econ­omy, rais­ing the price of gaso­line and re­mov­ing sub­si­dies, and at the mo­ment, be­cause the econ­omy is not do­ing so well, it has cre­ated a sense of con­cern among a lot of peo­ple.”

Stand­ing up … protests have been led by young and work­ing class Ira­ni­ans


Bold re­sis­tance … a wo­man raises her head­scarf in protest

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