Iranian protests are complex jigsaw puzzle, say observers

Demonstrations unprecedented since 1979 revolution, but reasons behind them are both economic and political

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 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 lack of social and political freedom.

The photo surfaced last week around the time when a new wave of anti-regime protests, that began over economic issues in north-eastern Iran, spread across the country in a way that no one anticipated. Now taking on a political dimension of huge scale, those protests – which continued for the consecutive fourth day on Sunday night – are posing the biggest challenge to Tehran’s leadership since the 2009 unrest, shaking the foundations of the Islamic Republic.

The geographical scale of the unrest in provinces, and the harshness of the slogans chanted are unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution. They are also drawing parallels to the months of anti-government unrest that ensued the 2009 disputed election, which gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office amid a bloody crackdown.

#IranProtests : un jour, on se souviendra que c'est ainsi que tout a commencé. #balancetonvoile

— J-Christophe Buisson (@jchribuisson) December 31, 2017

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 the future of the Iran. There are also big differences between this time round and the turbulence eight years ago.

A relatively small protest on Thursday in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, and also the main base for the opponents of moderate president Hassan Rouhani, unexpectedly gave impetus to a wave of spontaneous protests spreading across provinces. A source close to government officials told the Guardian that Rouhani’s administration believes the first protests were organised by his opponents, most notably supporters of his campaign rival, 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 dictator”, denouncing the leadership of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Within a day, the protests spread to Kermanshah, in the west of the country, 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. On Saturday evening, as protests grew bigger, anti-regime demonstrations were held in Tehran but also in Shahr-e-Kord, Bandar Abbas, Izeh, Arak, Zanjan, Abhar, Doroud (in Lorestan province where at least two protesters were killed), Khorramabad, Ahvaz, Karaj and Tonekabon.

Mohammad-Taghi Karroubi, the son of an Iranian opposition leader under house arrest, Mehdi Karroubi, said new demonstrations show 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 – that’s the government’s weakness, people are hopeless and when reformists are not pumping hope, they’re becoming even more disgruntled.”

Senior figures within the reformist camp, who do not back regime change, and even many supporters of the Green movement are uncomfortable with some of the slogans, such as those chanted in support of monarchy. Compared with 2009, the new protests also appear to lack any specific organisation behind them, which many see as an advantage because the state cannot easily crackdown on them by arresting a leader, and others as a disadvantage because they don’t have a clear strategy on the next step.

A former political prisoner, Mostafa Tajzadeh, who served many years in jail following the 2009 unrest, was also sceptical, warning that Iran may become another Syria. He called on the authorities to allow protests and urged protesters to respect the law.

While the middle class and the elites were behind the 2009 protests, this new wave appears to be led by the working class, which is most affected by the country’s economic woes.

Others say it is too soon to fully comprehend the new protests. “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 sharp contrast to the coverage of the 2009 protests, a number of state news agencies and local newspapers reported on the recent protests. On Sunday night, the state-run newspaper Iran was among the first to publish images of protests in Tehran. Earlier in the day, senior conservative cleric Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moghadam, speaking to semi-official Isna news, said authorities should listen to the protesters, give permission for gatherings and state TV must cover the demonstrations.

Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor sympathetic to the Islamic Republic, blamed Rouhani government’s economic policy over the protests, which began just weeks after the president unveiled next year’s budget.

“There are obviously economic problems ... I think that perhaps the government policy seems to some as leaning towards the liberalisation of the economy, rising 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,” he said.

Marandi added the protests have to be divided into two categories: “One is those who are protesting because of the economic situation, but I think there is a second trend which is far more political, but the two are not the same.” The question now is how the administration of Hassan Rouhani will handle the protests and whether his approach would be any different to the brutality seen under his predecessor in 2009. “The world is watching,” the US president, Donald Trump, tweeted.


Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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