After a week of nationwide street rallies, the Iranian regime has declared victory over anti-government protests against poverty, rising prices, and high unemployment. The regime has detained at least 450 people and at least 21 have died.
In 2009, an estimated two million Iranians protested against election fraud. As part of the Arab Spring two years later, protesters took to the streets again, chanting, “Obama, Obama, come help us.”
While this round was much smaller in size — the official estimate from Iranian paramilitaries is 15,000 — they are not correspondingly insignificant. According to Arash Aramesh, a national security analyst who appears frequently on U.S. cable news, the differences in protesters’ number, age, and class speak to a different, but much deeper-rooted discontent with the Iranian government.
“This was not just an urban middle class uprising protesting the result of a fraudulent election. This was an uprising by the poor, joined by the middle class, with chants and slogans against economic inequality, poverty, and unemployment,” he said. “For 39 years the regime in Tehran has relied on the downtrodden, the rural poor, as their base of support. Even a few hundred or a few thousand is a huge red flag."
The Iranian economy is recovering, but this is part of the government’s problem: the windfall from recovering oil prices and nuclear deal sanctions relief is not making its way to regular families. Sanctions relief has led to explosive GDP growth — 12 per cent in 2016. Even so, real household budgets have fallen 15 per cent over the last decade.
Hindering this recovery is the corruption that permeates the Iranian system. In 2011, the chairman of the country’s first national bank fled to Canada after reportedly embezzling 2.6 billion dollars. (He is reportedly living in Toronto while remaining wanted by Interpol; the Canadian government has formally declined to help because Canada and Iran do not have a bilateral extradition treaty).
Protesters also took aim at Iran’s regional ambitions. “Iran got all this money from sanctions relief, and the government is spending it in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, while there are Iranians starving to death,” Aramesh said. “There’s a slogan I heard — it rhymes in Farsi — ‘No to Lebanon, no to Gaza, pay attention to Iran.’ It goes directly against the ideological message of the regime and international Islamist movement.”
Female protesters have furnished the protest’s most indelible images: one taking off her hijab; another with her fist raised in a cloud of tear gas. “Be men, join us,” one protester called to the crowd. “I as a woman will stand in front and protect you. Come represent your country.”
Female protester to older Iranians: "You raised your fists and ruined our lives [referring to the 1979 Islamic revolution]. Now we raise our fists [to fix your mistake]. Be men, join us. I as a woman will stand in front and protect you. Come represent your country."#IranProtests pic.twitter.com/y9MjkaRqac— Armin Navabi (@ArminNavabi) January 1, 2018
So far, the U.S. policy response has been muted. Yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted approvingly about the protests, promising support “at the appropriate time.”
“If the president really wants to do something to support Iranian protesters, I’d like for him to provide some bite to his bark,” Aramesh said — disrupting Iranian state media broadcasts, demanding an open Internet for services like Google and Telegram, and forcefully condemning violence against peaceful protesters.
“Let’s face it: Donald Trump is neither respected nor popular in Iran,” he said. “No one is on the streets asking for his help. But even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
—with files from Ed Ngai