By Silvia Martelli
On 28 December, a relatively small protest broke out in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city by population, originating a wave of similar public manifestations across the country. Over seventy cities and towns have witnessed the uprising of such protests and, according to the authorities, 42,000 people have participated (although the real number may be much higher). The situation has been addressed by the state’s security apparatus through various methods of repression, resulting in the death of at least twenty five people (again merely an official figure), imprisonment of 1,000 and injuring of an uncounted number. As the government blocked the Internet, international concerns for Iranian people’s human rights have raised. On 5 January, four special rapporteurs of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Iranian government to acknowledge and respect protesters’ rights.
Originally, the protests were fuelled by economic grievances: a rising inflation that made basic goods in Iran extremely expensive (poultry and eggs almost doubled in price); youth unemployment standing at more than 40 percent; the country’s almost complete survival on oil sales despite high foreign investment; state-owned enterprises controlling significant sectors of the economy; more than 35 percent of Iranians standing under the poverty line. President Hassan Rouhani’s promises that the 2015 international nuclear deal would revitalize the economy have indeed not been met, inflaming those most harshly hit by Iran’s sluggish economy – members of the working class under the age of 25, who unsurprisingly constitute 90 percent of the protestants.
As manifestations continued into January, their scope expanded to include political opposition against a corrupt, theocratic regime that has very low tolerance for political dissent and tightly controls, if not suppresses, social freedoms, such as those of expression. Slogans have been key to the protests: initial chants of “death to Rouhani”, the President of Iran, have soon evolved into “Death to the dictator!”, referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an unelected cleric with untrammeled authority to override presidency’s policy decisions. Iran’s regional policy has also been opposed through mottos such as “I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon” and “Let go of Syria, think about us”.
The protests are the biggest challenge to the government after those occurring in 2009 due to the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They are much more significant in the provinces than they were in 2009, being of a scale rarely seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution; Tehran is only playing a minor role, following the lead of the rest of the country. Meanwhile, reformists, marginalised by hardliners for over a decade, have reacted in various ways. Some have remained mute, troubled by calls for regime change, whilst a number of others have asked the regime to allow peaceful demonstrations, yet expressing concerns about the radicality of the ongoing protests.
As the government continues its attempt to repress manifestations, the nostalgia for the deposed monarchy and its last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had ruthlessly suppressed the clergy, is increasingly tangible across the bloody streets of Iran.