The word in Tehran on the three days of anti-establishment protests that have shaken up Iran is that they have largely been driven by a revolt of the provincial poor that is little understood by middle-class and wealthier inhabitants of the capital.
The Iranian authorities were on December 31 attempting a many-sided strategy of trying to deter, hinder and disperse demonstrations, especially those that might gain critical mass in Tehran. For instance, a “smog holiday” was declared, thus forcing many potential demonstrators to stay at home to look after children off school, the provision of the internet became extremely patchy and “temporary” restrictions were placed on social networks such as hugely popular messaging app Telegram and photo sharing app Instagram. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, meanwhile, warned protesters they would face the nation’s “iron fist” if political unrest continued.
The protests have amounted to the biggest show of dissent against the establishment since the huge “Green Movement” rallies in 2009 in which at least 30 people were killed. They began in the northeast as a response to economic hardship and rising prices, but turned political in many places, with slogans chanted against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. “Like many journalists I live in middle-class Tehran which seems largely ignorant of what’s gone on so far,” a local correspondent told bne IntelliNews. “All local media have been taken aback by what is going on, from foreign reporters to government outlets. The source of the protests is outside Tehran so, given the capital city bias, people have not taken much notice of it until now. Satellite news channels were last night calling local journalists for comment but everyone was just saying they were as clueless as anyone else. One thing though—the free market gold and currency rates had hardly moved by this morning.”
Government statistics from Iranian government bodies are notoriously unreliable and irregularly released, but Iran’s struggle to pull out of its economic crisis while still facing sanctions pressure from the US Trump administration was, for instance, shown in the austere draft state budget presented to parliament by Rouhani on December 10. Then there are the occasional reports and anecdotes relating economic hardship caused by, for instance, punishing spurts of inflation, such as a near-doubling in the price of eggs and poultry seen in the past month, even though Rouhani is credited with having reduced inflation by around 20 percentage points to approximately 10% since he came to office in 2013.
Violence broke out in many locations across the country of 80 million on December 30, but as far as December 31 was concerned it was unclear how many demonstrations were occurring. The BBC, however, said there were reports of water cannon being used by police in Tehran against protesters who had gathered in a central square.
Kasra Naji, of BBC Persian—which in a recent investigation found that on average Iranians have become 15% poorer in the past 10 years—reported: “Protests have remained confined to relatively small pockets of mostly young male demonstrators who are demanding the overthrow of the clerical regime. They have spread even to small towns throughout the country and have the potential to grow in size. But there is no obvious leadership. Opposition figures have long been silenced or sent into exile. Even in exile, there is no one opposition figure that commands a large following.”
Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi told Italian newspaper La Repubblica on December 31 that the unrest was essentially social and economic and was just "the beginning of a big movement" that could be more widespread than the [anti-hardliner] demonstrations of 2009. "I think the protests are not going to end soon. It seems to me that we are witnessing the beginning of a big protest movement that can go well beyond the Green wave of 2009. It would not surprise me if it becomes something bigger," Ebadi, who lives in exile in London, said.
She reportedly added: "In Iran, and it is not new, there is a very serious economic crisis. The corruption in the whole country is at appalling levels. The end of certain sanctions related to the nuclear agreement with Europe and the United States in 2015 did not bring real benefits to the population, contrary to what many expected. Added to this is the fact that Iran has very high military expenditures. People are not willing to see so much money spent on it."
There are some signs that the green shoots of economic recovery are starting to be seen a little more frequently in the Islamic Republic but for many of the poor—not to mention social groups such as the thousands of young people who graduate each year with no hope of finding a commensurate job—it may be a case of too little, too late. One sign came from a senior International Monetary Fund official on December 18 who said Iran’s economy is starting to recover more rapidly from years of international sanctions but added that the country urgently needs to shore up its banks.
Economic growth leapt to 12.5% in the Persian calendar year that ended on March 20, but almost completely driving that were huge gains in oil exports, made possible after most international sanctions against Iran were lifted under the deal to curb the country’s nuclear program. Catriona Purfield, head of an IMF team which held annual consultations with the Iranian government this month, reportedly said: “Growth has begun to broaden to the non-oil sector.” She predicted GDP would expand 4.2% in the current fiscal year and that growth could rise toward 4.5%, provided financial reforms are put in place.
The death toll from the protests so far appears to have been modest. Authorities confirmed that two protesters had been killed in the western province of Lorestan but denied the deaths resulted from clashes between demonstrators and riot police. The deputy governor for Lorestan, Habibollah Khojastehpour, instead blamed “Takfiri groups”—the term used by Iran for Sunni extremists—and foreign intelligence services. “Unfortunately in these clashes two citizens from [the city of] Doroud were killed,” he said.
In the latest news of the protests emerging on the evening of December 31 carried by social media, there were reports of young protesters setting alight security posts in Lorestan, while in Tehran security forces were said to be blocking exits from the metro to stop demonstrators swelling the ranks of protests in the city.