Protests over the Iranian government’s handling of the economy spread to several cities Friday, including Tehran, in what appeared to be a sign of unrest.
President Hassan Rouhani began his second term in August after winning re-election on promises to revitalize an economy hurt by sanctions. Although foreign investment is rising, the country continues to survive mainly on oil sales. Youth unemployment stands at more than 40 per cent, sluggish state-owned enterprises control significant sectors of the economy, and U.S. sanctions prevent most international banks from providing financing or credit to Iran.
Many of the international sanctions against Iran were lifted under the 2015 accord on Iran’s nuclear program. But unilateral U.S. sanctions on doing financial transactions with Iran remain in place, and the cumulative effect of sanctions has been severe. Rouhani, who heralded the agreement as a fresh start, has faced criticism for not doing enough to jump-start the economy.
The Trump administration seized on reports of the protests to denounce Iran. “Iran’s leaders have turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos,” the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said in a statement. “As President Trump has said, the longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are Iran’s own people.” She added that the United States “strongly condemns the arrest of peaceful protesters.”
The protests began Thursday in Mashhad, a city of 2 million in the country’s northeast, where hundreds gathered to denounce recent price increases and the moribund state of the economy more generally, according to Iranian news agencies. Some of them shouted “Death to Rouhani.”
It was difficult to judge the size of the demonstrations and whether they were organized, and if so, by whom.
Relatively prosperous, Mashhad is dominated by hard-liners, including supporters of Ibrahim Raesi, who lost to Rouhani in the May elections.
Raesi has pressed the plight of the poor, a cause picked up by hard-liners who say that Rouhani’s government has failed to address rising inequality.
A new budget presented by the government this month was widely debated on Telegram, Iran’s most used social media outlet. Many people were upset over appropriations for religious and revolutionary institutions while other areas of the budget were cut. An unpopular “exit tax” that Iranians pay whenever they travel outside the country was increased, and millions of dollars were cut from a modest, but popular, subsidy plan for the poor.
At the same time, the government has allowed Iran’s currency to depreciate over the past half year, a psychological blow that resulted in inflation of certain products like a 40 per cent increase in the price of eggs.
Protests over economic conditions are not uncommon in Iran. They usually take place in front of Parliament in Tehran, and in smaller cities it is not uncommon to see protests by people who have lost their savings in bank failures, or retirees who can’t make ends meet. What seems distinctive about the protests this week is how quickly news about them spread on social media, and was in turn picked up by foreign-based satellite channels.
The semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency quoted Mohsen Nasj-Hamedani, Tehran’s deputy governor-general for security affairs, as saying that “a number of protesters” had been arrested in the capital Friday after “an illegal call” for a rally on social media platforms. He said about 50 people had showed up for the rally.
“A number of them left after being warned by police. A few others, however, remained despite being warned to leave,” the news service quoted him as saying, and “a number of them were detained after arrest warrants were issued.”
The Tasnim news agency quoted Hamedani as saying that no protest permits had been issued for Tehran and warning that “such gatherings will be firmly dealt with by the police.”
Hard-liners, including Hamedani, castigated the protesters, warning that Iran’s enemies would take advantage of any sign of dissent.
One hard-line religious leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, said that a protest in the northeastern city of Sabzevar had been disrupted when “all of a sudden, a small group of roughly 50 people among the crowd started to chant norm-braking slogans such as ‘Forget Palestine’ or ‘No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran.’” (Government-approved protests routinely invoke the Iranian government’s self-designated role as a defender of Palestinian aspirations and as a foe of the United States.)
A reformist ally of Rouhani, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, warned that protesters risked setting off unrest that might not be controllable.
“The ones who trigger political moves in the streets may not be the ones who will put an end to it, since others may ride the wave they have started, and they must know that their action will backfire on them,” the semi-official ISNA news agency quoted Jahangiri as saying. He added that the government was open to receiving “fair criticism.”
The protests also spread Friday to Kermanshah, a city in western Iran that is mainly inhabited by ethnic Kurds. It is near the site of an earthquake last month that killed hundreds of people.
About 300 people gathered at Freedom Square in the city and carried out a march in which public property was damaged, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is close to the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The protesters shouted anti-government slogans like “Death or freedom,” “Care for us and leave Palestine” and “Political prisoners must be freed,” according to Fars.
Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group, said it was possible that hard-line opponents of Rouhani were behind the protests in Mashhad, capitalizing on anger about the economic belt-tightening and about rising food and gasoline prices.
“The trigger was apparently a protest that the government’s hard-line opponents organized in Mashhad, which got out of control and turned into an antiregime rally and is now spreading across the country,” he said.
He noted that Saturday is the eighth anniversary of the nationwide demonstrations that helped crush the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement.
“The system will probably use it as a show of force and in its wake will repress any dissent,” Vaez said. “The only meaningful consequence probably is that it will provide ammunition for the Trump administration to further condemn the regime.”
But Nader Karimi Juni, a reformist journalist, was skeptical that hard-liners were behind the protests.
“If the protests continue for a while, which is not certain, it will be dangerous for the regime,” he said. “However, the future is unpredictable and the regime has managed to crack down on more serious protests in the past decades.”
Fazel Meybodi, a reformist cleric from the holy city of Qom, said he believed the protests had emerged from authentic concerns, as the government’s new budget had “made people in the provincial towns angry.”
“If the police and government treat people gently, this crisis will wane and tranquility will prevail,” he said. “Otherwise they might — I stress might — grow in the future. Economic issues are urgent, and the protests have nothing to do with any factions — neither reformist nor hard-liner. Poor people are protesting, that is it.”