Iran protests: is this time different?
By Mehdi Kia
Middle East 4 Change
January 4, 2018
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Posted in: Activism, Civil
Liberties, Iran, Politics/Gov., Repression | No comments
The protest movement that began on 28 December differs from those in
previous years. There is universal recognition that the protests were triggered
off by the worsening economy of the country, unemployment, and the unfulfilled
promises made after the singeing of the nuclear accord by the Rouhani
administration with the major global powers two years ago. There was also the
issue of the widespread corruption, sometimes amounting to astronomic figures
at all levels of government. Yet economic strictures and inflation are, if
anything, less today than in Ahmadinejad’s time in office, nor massive
corruption a new phenomenon. We therefore need to look at the root causes of
the current protest movement elsewhere.
Cities and large and small towns
While the demonstrations in Mashhad appear to be the first noted by the
media, it very rapidly spread across the country. This contrasts with the last
major series of public protests after the fraudulent elections of 2009 that
gave Ahmadinejad his second term of in the president’s office.
There the main centres of the popular protest was in Tehran, where at
its peak up to 3m people marched, and a few other major cities. Now
demonstrations have been seen in small or medium sized towns such as
Doroud, Andimeshg, Izeh, Shahrud, and Neishapour, alongside Tehran,
Isfahan, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Arak, Yazd, Ghom, Sari, Rasht, Hamedan, Ghazvin,
Bandar Abbas, Mashhad and many more.
Different class make up
Unlike 2009, where the majority of the protestors were from the more
secular middle class, today the majority of the protestors are from the lower layers
of society, those whom the economy has left more destitute than ever.
Furthermore, the outlook looks equally bleak with little prospects of
improvement. Particularly the educated youth from the less well-off classes
with no prospects of work have been prominent in the current protest movement.
Rapid escalation of slogans
It took only three days for slogans with economic content to be
transformed into political ones calling for the overthrow of the regime.
Moreover, such slogans as Death to Rouhani, and Death to the Dictator
– and later more overtly Death to Khamenei’ – targeted both the elected
government of Rouhani and the non-elected structure with the Supreme Leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’ at its helm. The latter’s picture has been torn down.
In many towns demonstrators have attacked, and even burnt government buildings.
Such slogans were heard in almost all the towns and cities where demonstrations
took place. In comparison, it took the people over one year to elevate their
slogans into the political realm in the 1979 revolution. In 2009 such slogans
were very sporadically heard, and only directed at the supreme leader.
Long rehearsal period
There seems to have been a long prelude to the current protests. Over
the last year we have witnessed almost continuous small-scale protests across
the country with complaints that related to loss of jobs, non-payment of wages
and corrupt banks swallowing up life savings. These included teachers
protesting at pay and working conditions, workers protesting at layoffs and
non-payment of wages, savers protesting outside banks that had swallowed up
their savings. There were protests outside the ministry of labour when trade
union leader Reza Shahabi was taken seriously ill while imprisoned. Some of the
slogans being uttered, especially those opposing the adventures and
expenditures of the regime in Iraq and Syria, such as Forget about Syria,
think about us, contrasting with the increasing poverty of the people were
also heard sporadically over the previous year. All these were almost like a
dress rehearsal for today and may explain the rapid escalation of slogans from
economic to political.
While the deteriorating economy, increasing unemployment and rapidly
rising cost of living, has been the background to the increasing discontents in
the country, the economy was much worse under eight years of Ahmadinejad than
it is now. During his tenure, despite the much higher oil revenues, growth was
1% versus the 4% reported now. Similarly, inflation was in excess of 400% while
today reported inflation is nearer 60%. Thus it is the non-improvement of the
economy despite the promises made after sanctions were supposedly removed that
are the target.
Slogans against corruption have featured in a lot of the slogans being
uttered across the country. Such slogans as Our country is a house of
thieves, across the world it is unique, highlight the disgust people feel
at the astronomical levels of corruption of all sections of the regime. Despite
rigid censorship, the increasing rivalry between factions particularly after
the signing of the nuclear accord has allowed discussion of corruption to enter
the media. There was not only a naming of names but also the printing of
astronomical figures of corruption. People were particularly angered by the
huge sums of money diverted to the clerical institutions, which they believed
should have gone into welfare in these bad economic times. It is thus no
surprise that alongside slogans against the entire regime, there have been others
targeting the clergy as a group (The people are begging, the clerics act
like God or Mullah, shame on you, let go of the country).
The revolutionary guards excluded
The entire regime – meaning the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’ and
the Rouhani government – are blamed for the deteriorating economy and the
corruption. Even the basij mobilisation forces have been targets of the
demonstrators in some places. Yet the revolutionary guards (sepah pasdaran)
have been surprisingly spared. However, the revolutionary guards are one of the
main causes of both corruption and the economic downturn. The sepah and
the thousands of companies under their control account for 30% of the economy.
They have a ring-fenced (secret) budget that is sliced off before the main
budget is presented to Majles for ratification. They pay no taxes. They control
the entire enormous smuggling network, from luxury cars and videos to
narcotics. They have special access to scarce foreign exchange. Hence they
cannot be absolved from the bankruptcies and downturns in the other sectors of
the economy. Operating under the radar, their role in the mess that is the
country, is not fully appreciated. The sepah even supported the demos in
the first two days hoping to weaken President Rouhani, before they changed
direction. They have as yet to directly intervene in a significant way in
containing the protests.
Earthquake in Kurdistan
The earthquake with a Richter scale of 7.5 that hit western Kurdistan
last autumn showed the incompetence of the administration and the utter
distrust of the people in its ability to cope. Within 24 hours the people of
Kermanshah, the closest city to the epicentre of the quake, and also sustaining
damages by it, had sent out over 1,000 trucks loaded with aid for the victims
of the earthquake, followed by people in many other parts of Iran. It was as if
people had lost any hope of the government having any realistic and effective
response. There are here echoes of the earthquake that flattened the city of
Tabas on the eve of the 1979 revolution. Popular mobilisation of aid to the
victims of that natural disaster was an important impetus on escalating the
revolutionary movement against the shah.
In summary the current uprising is a culmination of accumulating
feelings of frustration by the poorest and most deprived sections of society
with the entire regime of the Islamic Republic. While sections of the
population had previously hoped for change and reform within the system, today
it is clear that even those who in the past could be relied upon to rally round
one or other faction of the regime have lost all hope.
Yet this remains a protest movement that knows what it does not want but
has yet to find what it wants in its place. In the absence of organisation and
leadership with a clear alternative to the regime, the current protests are
destined to either peter out, be repressed, manipulated by foreign enemies, or
be hijacked by one or other populist demagogue.
I wish to thank Ardeshir Mehrdad for some of the points made in this