Revolt

What’s really behind the deadly unrest that’s broken out in Iran

A young woman stands unveiled on Tehran’s bustling Enghelab Avenue, waving a white flag. She has become the face of Iran’s protest movement. (Facebook)

If you are surprised by the deadly upheaval in Iran, then you haven’t been paying attention. But don’t worry, you are in good company. The Iranian political establishment and Washington experts were all caught off-guard by the current protests that have claimed at least 21 lives and resulted in hundreds of arrests.

I can’t claim to have predicted the current uprising — but I can’t say I’m surprised that it’s taking place. For months I’ve been receiving hundreds of video clips from ordinary Iranians hailing from all parts of the country, documenting small protests and their personal acts of defiance. Their complaints have been suppressed for a long time, but now, thanks to mobile phone technology and messaging apps, like Telegram, Iranians can bypass official media and the censors.

Unlike the 2009 Iran protests, this time it’s not about an election. It’s about starvation, and now democracy. They’ve been complaining about lack of water, electricity, food and salaries that haven’t been paid in months. All the things Ayatollah Khomeini promised people in 1979 after the revolution just have not come true.

Frustrations have been growing for months. The thinking among Iranians is that the Islamic Republic has become accident-prone and careless toward its own citizens. There were months of scattered protests in small towns by striking workers demanding unpaid wages. Last May, coal miners confronted President Hassan Rouhani after dozens of co-workers died at an underground explosion. Other workers complaining about pay had been beaten with batons and whips. Listen to this woman’s harrowing story about the harsh life she’s been living lately. “They’re firing factory workers,” she screams in a video I posted on My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook page that I operate. “Some of them have not been paid their salaries for three months. The authorities cannot be unaware of this!” The woman, who was among the protesters said she had been beaten by security forces for speaking out.

Cities across Iran had also seen protests by those who lost their life savings as unregulated financial institutions have gone bankrupt. There had been grumblings by pensioners about high prices of some goods as inflation hovered in the low teens.

Amid all this bubbling anger there was another cultural development — the challenge by women against compulsory hijab rules, a fight that is close to my heart. Since the launch of #WhiteWednesday in spring, many women had taken to the streets either without wearing the obligatory headscarf or taken to wearing a white shawl. Many captured videos of themselves conducting their acts of civil disobedience, which I posted on my social media sites.

Many of these women would film their interactions with the morality police, using their mobile phones almost as a weapon. What is clearly noticeable in these videos is the lack of fear in these young women when confronted by the morality police. The Islamic Republic’s machinery of repression cannot operate if the fear factor is no longer there. The ordinary acts of civil disobedience over dress codes have empowered many women to stand up for their rights.

The street protests, leaderless and chaotic as they are, nevertheless highlight the fact that the Islamic Republic has failed many of its own citizens, especially the downtrodden, like my own family, the folks just hovering around the poverty line. But it is not true that these people don’t know what they want.

An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

More than anything else, these people simply want a voice. They want to be heard. They want free elections where their choices really count and are not  limited by what the Supreme Leader or his cohorts on the Guardian Council decide. They also want a fairer share of the national wealth, a significant part of which is diverted to numerous religious centers and foundations, not to mention the vast sums that are spent on propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah.

I would venture that most protesters would also support equality of men and women and reject the mindless banning of women from sports stadiums and compulsory hijab laws.

“Death to the dictator” and “Death to the Supreme Leader” are slogans that have rung out across the cities of Iran in the past few days. After 40 years, the Islamic Republic has learnt that it is governing a people that want to get rid of it. If the Islamic Republic wants to endure another 40 years, it must learn to change and embrace change.

It is not clear if the system is flexible enough. Intense competition by members of Rouhani’s team against hardliners will mean that there will be paralysis and no real reform. President Rohani asserts that only peaceful demonstrations are acceptable in Iran. However, this statement is not true. I have interviewed a teacher (Esmail Abdi), a bus driver (Reza Shahabi), a women’s rights activist (Narges Mohammadi), who are presently serving prison sentences for engaging in peaceful demonstration.

I have also interviewed a minor who was involved in a peaceful demonstration. However, afterward, he was arrested and lashed for his peaceful activism. All of them demonstrated in front of the Iranian Parliament. In addition, a day before these widespread protests erupted, I received video of a girl who was engaging in a #WhiteWednesdays protest against compulsory veil. She had the bravery to stand unveiled on a plinth in Tehran’s bustling Enghelab Avenue waving a white flag. She later became the face of Iran’s protest movement. Despite the peaceful nature of her civil disobedience, she was swiftly arrested. So, can people really demonstrate in Iran without getting arrested? These people had all arranged individual protests in the first place. However, as their pleas fell on deaf ears, the protest movement grew in scope and has evolved into what it is today. Women in Iran have been at the forefront of demonstrations. I have received videos from these heroic women who were braving the security forces in various towns in Iran. You can see all of these videos on My Stealthy Freedom page. Some of these videos have become the faces of the protest movement — the faces of women are complaining about their deteriorating living conditions, lack of liberties, and their desire for equality.

What about U.S. President Donald Trump? Trump definitely has a different stance toward Iran than Obama. Trump has lashed out at the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015. After the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brought sanctions relief, Iran’s GDP skyrocketed. But where did the money go? Not into hands of ordinary Iranians. While people’s expectations went up, the money only went into pockets of ruling clerics and the IRGC. The Iran nuclear deal was an opportunity for the government to do the right thing. I personally supported the deal, believing the Iranian government would do the right thing. But they failed.

Iranians chant slogans as they march in support of the government near the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017.
Tens of thousands of regime supporters marched in cities across Iran in a show of strength for the regime after two days of angry protests directed against the country’s religious rulers. (HAMED MALEKPOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

However, I think that we are focusing too much on foreign elements and whether or not they are involved in this, as the Iranian government would have you believe, by forgetting the fact that this is a home-grown movement. People have legitimate grievances, the repressive government in Tehran does not take into account their wishes and aspirations. Contrary to what the Iranian government suggests, these demonstrations are not of foreign origin. The demands are genuine and the government in Iran should account for that. The clerics in power are quick to blame Saudi Arabia for their own domestic shortcomings, but the fact of the matter is, this is an internal problem. I have criticized Trump and his visa ban on various occasions. I am still very critical of him. By criticizing Trump, does that make me a supporter of the Islamic Republic? Quite simply, no. Then, why should these demonstrators and people like me who support them be construed as Trump supporters? We are voicing the genuine concerns of Iranians; what Iranians have been experiencing as problems are home-grown.

And because the problems are home-grown, it’s important to pay attention where they began sprouting up and then caught on. While the protests started in most conservative areas like Mashhad, they quickly spread all over the country, including liberal towns like Tehran and Shiraz. The slogans also grew increasingly bolder and political with slogans like “No to Islamic Republic,” “Death to Dictator”  and “Death to Khamenei.” In this regard, it would be erroneous to classify the discontentment of the population as being simply of economic origin. People are fed up with being told what to do, how to dress, and how to pray. They want freedom. In fact, the protests initially erupted in more conservative towns like Mashhad, which is Iran’s second-largest city. The fact that it started in such strategically important city like Mashhad was a blow to the clerics. Plus, the security apparatus in Tehran is more extensive now than the rest of the country and many people have reported that it is quite difficult to demonstrate without getting arrested. Despite this, thousands of people took to the streets in Tehran alone. What seemingly started as a lower-class rebellion resonates with the democracy-loving middle class as well.

The situation is very explosive and difficult to predict. The government should ideally listen to protesters, back down, and consult the population about the type of political system that they desire. Otherwise, even though they may manage to repress the anger of the population, we might expect people to rise up again sometime in the future. For being hopeful, yes, I have hope. When people rose up 9 years ago in the Green Movement, it was severely repressed and many people lost hope. People were under the impression that the heavy-handedness of the coercive apparatus had put an end to Iranians’ dissent to their repressive political system. The fact that they have risen up again shows that the spirit of protest is alive. You know, Iranians have been militating for democracy, a fair distribution of wealth, a more representative system for more than 100 years. We are a nation that knows how to surprise the world and ourselves when it is the least expected. I am hopeful that my countrymen’s resilience will pay off. It may not be tomorrow, but it will be someday. The spirit of civil disobedience is alive and kicking.

Masih Alinejad in an Iranian journalist and ex-patriot living in New York City. She operates the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.