The most extensive civil unrest in Iran since 2009 began with protests in the northern city of Mashhad on December 28, then spread across the country, leading to hundreds of arrests and the deaths of more than 20 demonstrators.
The ongoing tumult is a manifestation of long-term discontent at a political system that has failed to reform, creating economic hardship for the people, according to three experts on modern Iranian politics interviewed byWikiTribune.
They offered diverging perspectives on the future of the Islamic Republic and predictions for the future of the protests.
Zohreh Zanjani was arrested for protesting the hijab shortly after the 1979 Iran Revolution and was imprisoned for three years, where she was tortured and witnessed the executions of several cellmates. She fled to the UK during the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, fearing for her daughter’s life. She volunteers at the International Liberty Association, a British non-governmental organization that raises awareness of human rights in Iran.
“We believe these protests will bring an end to the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic and a new democratic political system will rise.” – Zohreh Zanjani
The current protests are smaller, but more widespread than those in 2009. In the past seven days, protests have occurred in different towns and cities, large and small. In 2009, the main protests were in the capital, Tehran.
Protesters all over the country have had enough of the oppressive regime and are demanding basic humanitarian freedoms. Protesters have not only criticized the conservatives but also the reformists, which resulted in reformists making violent attempts to stop these protests. So, in contrast to the Green Movement, these protesters don’t have any political affiliation and are against all Iranian factions. That’s why these protests are considered to be innovative.
Iranians from different social classes are coming together and demanding a regime change. The fact that all their resources go to the ruling elites seems to be what angers the protesters the most. Besides this, protesters are also dissatisfied about censorship, corruption, female inequality and unemployment.
The Iranian government has shown no mercy over the years and the public has had enough. The public is tired of witnessing public hangings, torture and executions from the government on a daily basis. Ayatollah Khomeini blaming Iran’s “enemies” for stirring up discontent is seen as propaganda by the Iranian public. This dissatisfaction with the government is not something new. The public has already been asking for change for the past few years.
“Unfortunately, former president of the United States, Barack Obama, did not voice his support during the Green Movement. Today, however, we are happy to see President Trump and many others in the international community supporting the Iranian people.” – Zohrah Zanjani
Iranians are looking for international support in order to pressure the government into making a change. They want people outside of Iran to be their voice so the world can see and understand what’s happening in their country.
Unfortunately, former president of the United States, Barack Obama, did not voice his support during the Green Movement. Today, however, we are happy to see President Trump and many others in the international community supporting the Iranian people and their uprising against the Iranian regime. The regime will act according to the reaction of the international community.
We believe these protests will bring an end to the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic and a new democratic political system will rise.
Ali Ansari is the founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews and the author of several books on modern Iranian politics and society.
“The economic malaise is a consequence of the political malaise in the country. A succession of leaders have promised to be able to reform this but have almost all come unstuck when faced with the reactionary deep state that exists in Iran.” – Ali Ansari
The underlying catalyst behind the unrest is the economic discontent but that’s been going on for years. I think there’s been an expectation that the nuclear agreement would yield some sort of respite from the pressures that have been afflicting the country as a whole and President [Hassan] Rouhani made all sorts of inflated promises about where this might lead and of course he hasn’t been able to deliver.
He’s a pragmatist. Because the West is having a bit of a love affair with Rouhani it tends to see him through rose-tinted spectacles, and because of the nuclear agreement they tend to see him as a “good guy” or a sort of “good cop.” The fact is that inside Iran itself Rouhani has not been seen as someone who can deliver on his extensive promises and talk.
Fundamentally the problem is political, while the immediate causes are economic. The economic malaise is a consequence of the political malaise in the country. A succession of leaders have promised to be able to reform this but have almost all come unstuck when faced with the reactionary deep state that exists in Iran.
Whenever they get into trouble they blame the “hidden hand” [of the U.S. and other enemies]. The truth is that these protests are extremely strange, It’s like a series of bush fires spontaneously combusting around the country and people don’t know what’s going on.
What’s interesting is that the government has used the smartphone network as a means of controlling messaging. But of course that’s not easy and there’s a long history in Iran of these types of societal movements gaining momentum.
My sense is [these protests] will be crushed. It will be slow, methodical and they will crush it. But it still doesn’t augur well for the Islamic Republic. It’s like whack-a-mole. They can keep hitting but I think they will continue to have problems and the odds are they won’t be able to completely suppress this.
It could cause instability for a long time to come. They’re already preparing the ground for it. All this stuff about “foreign infiltrators” is basically preparing the public for what is going to happen next.
There’s a lot of anger out there. It’s probably the first time we’ve heard people chanting in favor of the deposed monarchy. That is the clearest indication of the ideological bankruptcy of the system – that 40 years after the revolution you’ve got people marching on the streets chanting in support of the monarchy. It beggars belief.
Roya Boroumand runs the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, a Washington-based non-profit organization promoting human rights and democracy in Iran.
“We work on the death penalty and the poor and the minorities are the victims of capital punishment in Iran. I can tell you from experience that they live in terrible conditions.” – Roya Boroumand
The 2009 protests followed weeks of intense electoral campaigning, during which the state had tolerated activities, behaviors and gatherings that it would not normally tolerate.
As a result, an unusually big and diverse group of people (middle class, beyond existing political factions and students) became involved in the electoral campaign and in the ensuing protest. But, the 2009 protests were limited to Tehran and a handful of cities across the country. There was a clear leadership inside the country. With that leadership imprisoned or silenced, the movement died down.
The current protests seem to have started with an initiative of “hardliners” in the holy city of Mashhad to organize a protest targeting the president, but the protest got out of hand and spread fast, because the population it brought out is really deprived and fed up. Basically, they have little to lose and are difficult to control.
The current protests have no clear [objective], in part because they are leaderless and involve a crowd that is not articulate or politically active. It is clear that protesters are fed up with poverty and the corruption they see in the leadership. In religious cities such as Qom, Mashhad and other places, there have been consistent slogans against the Islamic Republic and clerical rule. Protesters have also chanted slogans in favor of the former dynasty and expressed regret about the revolution.
The few interviews with protesters distributed on Telegram [an instant messaging service], the grievances are unemployment, corruption and theft of public wealth, media censorship of their grievances, etc.
This is a constituency we are more familiar with because we work on the death penalty and the poor and the minorities are the victims of capital punishment in Iran. I can tell you from experience that they live in terrible conditions.
What they all have in common is that no one sees them or cares about them and they are fully aware of that.
[The] protesters do not support any existing political faction in the country, which has resulted in an unacceptably dismissive attitude from the reformers and their supporters in Iran. The reformers come from a totalitarian ideological past and have never supported any movement that is not fully under their control or looks beyond them and beyond the Islamic Republic as a whole.
These interviews have been edited for style and clarity.