Tuesday 18 December 2018

Deadly protests sweeping across Iran could escalate in two ways - and both have very grave outcomes

An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

Does much of the unrest over the past week in Iran come down to the price of eggs? The cost of such a basic foodstuff has rocketed recently, with the country's Mehr news agency reporting last week that eggs were 50pc more expensive than usual. But the price of eggs is just one manifestation of Iran's economic travails, with the country's citizens feeling increasingly pinched and its youth struggling with unemployment rates of 40pc.

The demonstrations that began in the northern city of Mashhad - Iran's second largest city and an important religious site - on December 28 appear to have been largely driven by anger over economic grievances and corruption within official circles.

They have now spread to cities and towns across the country and at least 21 people have been killed in clashes. As the protests gained momentum, those taking part began chanting slogans that were not just about the economy but also against the whole system underpinning the Islamic Republic itself, and its supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Not a call for reforms, but a rejection of the ruling order. Some protesters have yelled "Death to the dictator" - a reference to Khamenei.

This is one of the key aspects that makes what is happening in Iran right now different to the last wave of protests the country experienced in 2009. That year, a contested presidential election that returned the incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered protests that collectively became known as the "Green Movement". The response of the Iranian authorities then was swift and brutal: on the streets of Tehran, I watched the Basij - essentially a militia offshoot of the elite Revolutionary Guard - show no mercy. Dozens were killed in the Iranian capital and other major cities, hundreds more were jailed and tortured. The Green Movement's leadership - which had called for reform but not the toppling of the entire cleric-led system essentially in place since the 1979 revolution - was put under house arrest. Supporters of the Green Movement insisted to me again and again that they wanted reforms, not a sharp shock to the existing order, fearing the consequences of the latter. Many of them are watching what has been unfolding across the country over the past week with surprise and some wariness. Most have steered clear of participating as they scramble to understand this new dynamic.

Unlike 2009, there is no central movement or leadership behind the current unrest. Its supporters on social media refer to it as "Tazahorat-e Sarasari", which translates as "protests everywhere", and even veteran opposition activists have been taken aback by its spontaneous nature. The fact that protests have erupted in smaller cities - which often tend to be more conservative - that were relatively untouched by the Green Movement in 2009 (at the time the regime tried to discredit those rallies as the sole preserve of an out of touch "westernised" elite in Tehran) has intrigued many. One Iranian activist I know was surprised to see demonstrations in her hometown which up to now had not experienced much dissident activity.

In many ways, this unrest appears to be fuelled by the rage of what might be called "Middle Iran" - the impoverished denizens of provincial cities and towns where the economic crisis has bitten hard. The demonstrations - which appear to be dominated by angry young men - came after a budget proposal from the government of reformist president Hassan Rouhani, outlining cuts to subsidies for the poor and a hike in fuel prices, was made public.

Three years ago, it was estimated between 20pc and 35pc of Iranians lived below the poverty line - a definition the government set at $720 (€598) a month for a family of four.

The rage over such privations stems also from a growing perception of Iran's ruling elite - a combination of clerics and politicians buttressed by the Revolutionary Guard - as corrupt, with accusations of embezzlement and cronyism common. A 2013 investigation by Reuters showed that some of the organisations Ayatollah Khamenei controls - reportedly without oversight - have allowed him to accrue great wealth. Unsurprisingly, Khamenei and other senior officials have blamed the US and other "external agitators" for the unrest - a claim they also made in 2009. State media has reported pro-government rallies in Tehran, drawing thousands chanting "Death to America" to show support.

As protests continue, two scenarios could be game-changers. One is if the authorities decide to crackdown even further and more deaths occur, causing an escalation of the demonstrations and possibly more violence. The other is if middle class Iranians from the country's reformist current - those who formed the backbone of protests in 2009 - abandon what appears to be an ambivalent stance on the rudderless demonstrations so far and take to the streets with their poorer compatriots. That would be a shock to the system.

Que nus, conecullore cor sandipsant, quae volut la veliquatur, sequias solest opta

Irish Independent

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