Iran shaken from within
Angry demonstrations are biggest since 2009 Weak economy and food price rises blamed
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