Jakub Stepaniuk analyses the origins and impact of recent protests in Iran
The world has just observed a wave of social dissent in Iran unseen in recent years. The most probable reason causing people to go to the streets and demand various changes is their disillusionment concerning promised social and economic progress.
The last serious wave of resistance occurred in 2009, during the ‘Green Revolution’. Unlike this year’s protests, the ‘revolution’ was specifically engaged with the issue of alleged vote-rigging. The demands of people were clearly focused on making the authorities respect the Iranian constitutional law. This year’s protests have featured a plethora of diversified slogans, emerging from across the full political spectrum, including both liberals and radical conservatives. Moreover, the fact that the spark of dissent was ignited in Mashhad, a city considered to be the regime`s conservative stronghold, makes the nature of protests seem even more obscure. The sporadic, ill-defined yet widespread nature of the current protests made them seem not dissimilar to the 2011 Arab Spring.
Hopes for a brighter future were based on the election of the supposed moderate president Hasan Rouhani in 2013. Yet upon his election, a revolution of political customs did not occur. The conservative regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was maintained, along with its human rights violations and systematic use of oppression. The leaders of persecuted opposition groups all remained in prisons.
Although Rouhani endorsed 2015 Nuclear Deal with the USA, successfully lifting the majority of economic sanctions which blocked the Iranian economy from the western markets, this seems to have failed to lead to significant social improvements. Further, a costly proxy war being played out against Saudi Arabia, which has featured comprehensive engagements in the internal affairs of Yemen and Syria, seems to have made the economic situation of ordinary Iranians even worse. State data shows unemployment has reached levels of 20%, while unofficial reports suggest youth unemployment is as high as 50%.
It was thus fundamentally for basic economic necessities, including the eradication of widespread poverty and an end to both high unemployment and rising inflation, that the first few hundred workers and students began protesting in Mashhad. The Mashhad demands rapidly spread around other destitute areas of the country. They have featured such radical expressions as “death to dictator” – something which, until now, had not been seen in political protests in the Islamic Republic.
As with the Arab Spring, the reaction of authorities and local Guard Corps has been brutal. The use of tear gas and clubbing by the authorities has been common. In response, protestors have escalated their actions from burning rubbish containers and tyres to attacking police stations. It is estimated that over four thousand people have been arrested and over twenty killed. Amnesty International has highlighted the use of torture in its most recent reports – a more plausible explanation for injuries and deaths that that of the security forces, who tried to blame them on suicides and self-stabbings.
Demonstrators were portrayed in state media as the violent militias working for international rivals like the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kurds. The authorities banned social media and blocked Internet access parts of country. Such a reaction again resembles the hectic reactions of Arabic governments in 2011, who also strove to annihilate free communication. In a quite absurd move that belies the Iranian government’s desperation, Tehran also announced an outright ban on English language teaching in all primary schools in order to counteract the purported ‘western cultural invasion’.
If we are to look at events further through the scope of the Arab Spring, it is true that, though the reaction of police can be equated with the roughness of Syrian or Libyan authorities, the resentment of the people does not seem to be as severe. Yet it remains highly significant that the social make-up of the protesters encompasses the whole of society, with people of all different ages, educational and ideological backgrounds. Indeed, the emergence of such serious, unprecedented social phenomena may turn out to be the final warning for the current government to comprehensively improve Iran’s social and economic conditions. Otherwise, future waves of resistance stemming from the same sentiment of social and economic disillusionment may well resonate in the coming years to dramatically transform not only the political structures of Iran, but the also wider the security of Gulf and Middle East.