Surprise protest

Print edition : February 02, 2018

A demonstration in solidarity with anti-government protests in Iran near the Iranian Embassy in Paris, on January 6. Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Handout/AP

President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Handout/AP

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo: AP

Economic hardship and the interference of hostile foreign powers result in short-lived protests in the poorer quarters of Iranian cities, sending out a strong message to the clerical establishment.

THE street protests that erupted in several Iranian cities in late December must have come as a surprise to the authorities, particularly since they were initially concentrated in Mashad and Qom, the cities that are considered to be the bastion of conservative politicians and clerics. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resides in Qom. Tehran, which had been the epicentre of anti-government protests in the past, was unaffected.

In 2009, the capital city was rocked by protests by supporters of the “Green Movement” against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They had claimed that the presidential election was rigged.

Most of the demonstrators then were middle-class Iranians; there is no love lost between them and Ahmadinejad, whose main support base was in rural areas and smaller towns. Ahmadinejad’s populist policies helped provide food and other subsidies to around 30 per cent of the population. But for these measures, this segment of the population would have descended below the poverty line. The steep rise in the prices of essential commodities has hit the poorer sections hard. The long years of economic sanctions had resulted in an underground economy and corruption. During a visit to Bushehr in late December, Ahmadinejad said the Iranian leadership seemed to be “detached from the problems and concerns of the people”. There are reports that he has been put under house arrest.

President Hassan Rouhani and many of his senior colleagues have said that the Iranian people have the right to protest against the government but that they should do so peacefully. According to the authorities, around 20 people were killed in the violent protests, which petered out in a week. Many young people joined the protests, which were concentrated in the poorer parts of the cities. Around 200 students have been arrested. The youths were protesting against unemployment and social restrictions. Some young women demonstrators were seen without their head scarves.

The protests were confined to those areas that feel neglected. The government was expecting an economic boom following the signing of the nuclear deal with the United States in 2015. Although the U.S. has not lifted many of the draconian sanctions, many European countries have resumed trade and investment links with Iran. But the investment bonanza projected by the government and analysts did not materialise in view of the continuing sanctions and the Donald Trump administration’s threat to scrap the nuclear deal. The international prices of oil and gas, which are Iran’s main exports, continue to remain low, hampering faster economic growth. The rate of unemployment remains high, hovering at 12 per cent. The economy, however, registered a 6.4 per cent increase in 2016 after contracting by more than 3 per cent in 2015.

In the past five years, the Rouhani government had to expend a lot of blood, sweat and money to stave off looming security threats. Iran’s intervention played a big role in the defeat of forces that were intent on regime change in Syria. These forces were supported, armed and financed by the enemies of Iran, led by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. Their aim was to break “the axis of resistance” comprising Iran, Syria and Hizbollah, which are the only regional forces willing to stand up to Israel. Iran had played a key role in bolstering the Iraqi government as it faced threats from the Daesh (Islamic State) and Kurdish separatists. A few demonstrators had raised slogans criticising Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq and Palestine. But they were a microscopic minority. A recent opinion poll showed that support for Iran’s military role against the Daesh and in Syria had actually increased. Over 67.1 per cent of the voters had said that Iran should increase its involvement in the fight against the Daesh and 64.9 per cent supported Iran’s role in Syria.

Many observers of the Iranian political scene point out that the latest unrest erupted after details of huge budgetary allocations for institutions controlled by the clergy and to the security establishment were leaked. The budget also proposed gradual removal of subsidies for the marginalised sections. Billions of dollars were earmarked for the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and religious foundations. This information could have triggered the protests. Ayatollah Khamenei has full control over the IRGC, which is the praetorian force of the Islamic Republic. The Army and the security services are answerable to the Supreme Leader. The elected government is left with little manoeuvring space when it comes to important aspects of decision-making and budget formulation. President Mohammed Khatami’s efforts to reform the system in 1997 failed in the face of overwhelming hostility from the all-powerful clerical establishment.

Rouhani wanted the budget to be more focussed on reinvigorating the economy. When the anti-government protests were going on, one of Rouhani’s close aides, Heshamodin Ashna, tweeted about the need to correct the “unbalanced distribution of the budget”. Ayatollah Khamenei, in a speech delivered on the third day of the protests, said that the nation was struggling with “high prices, inflation and recession”. He asked the government to resolve the problem with determination. The protests seem to have sent a strong message to the clerical establishment. Rouhani may now emerge with his position strengthened.

The Iranian government has accused foreign powers of fomenting the protests. Only a few governments openly supported the protesters, who appeared to be a leaderless and disorganised lot. Trump, not surprisingly, was the loudest in his criticism of the Iranian government’s handling of the situation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also quick to criticise the Iranian government and express his support for the protests. Trump and Netanyahu are among the most hated figures in Iran.

Western game plan

In the second week of December, top U.S. and Israeli security officials met in Washington to formulate a plan to contain Iran in the West Asian region and to roll back the nuclear deal. The U.S. team was led by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the Israeli team by his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabat. After the meeting, an Israeli official told the media that both the countries have a similar view on the regional situation, especially on Iran. “We reached an understanding regarding the policy and strategy needed to counter Iran. Our understandings deal with the overall strategy but also with concrete goals, way of action and the means which we need to obtain those goals,” the official explained. What happened two weeks later in Iran could have been part of this game plan.

European governments have been more circumspect in their reactions to the short-lived unrest and have refused to replicate Trump’s virulent anti-Iran stance. There is plenty of rationale behind the Iran government’s position that there was a foreign hand behind the recent unrest.

The U.S. and some of its allies have not still reconciled to the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Every Iranian remembers the events of 1953 when a popularly elected government was overthrown with the active help of U.S. and British intelligence agencies.

After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the West tried many methods to destabilise Iran. First, it tried to foment civil strife and then prevailed upon the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to launch a war against Iran. The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years. The brutal war caused huge damage and casualties in both countries. Subsequently, the U.S. tried to prop up the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. The group was responsible for several terrorist attacks inside and outside Iran.

Before the signing of the nuclear deal, Iranian nuclear scientists were kidnapped or assassinated. U.S. and Israeli security services have been the main suspects in these terror acts. Jundullah, a Sunni extremist organisation, is said to be a recipient of secret U.S. and Israeli funding. It is active along the border Iran shares with Pakistan and has been responsible for many heinous acts of terror. The leader of Jundullah, who was captured by Iran in 2010, was seen on Iranian television saying that the U.S. had promised military support to his organisation.

Ayatollah Khamenei has blamed foreign “enemies” for the latest violence. A few protesters had raised slogans questioning the role of the Supreme Leader in the country’s politics. The Head of Iran’s National Security Agency, Ali Shamkhani, said that social media campaigns encouraging protests were orchestrated by the intelligence agencies of the U.S., Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Besides Trump, the Washington-based neoconservative Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) was among the loudest cheerleaders of the protests. The FDD, while thanking Trump for his support for the anti-government protests, urged the U.S. government to do more.

The FDD has, on previous occasions, supported the bombing of Iran to bring about regime change. It is heavily backed by multimillionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and Marcus Fox, who support Israel. Their aim was to provide more ammunition to the Trump administration to scuttle the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Trump has been talking about achieving this goal ever since taking office. He alleged that the unlocking of some frozen Iranian financial assets following the nuclear deal had led to widespread corruption in Iran. Trump has taken the unprecedented decision of banning all Iranians from travelling to the U.S. Any hope that the protesters would get wider public support was doomed with the unsolicited messages of support from Trump, who is blatantly working on behalf of Iran’s enemies.

It was at the urging of its neoconservative backers that the Trump administration, in a foolhardy move, decided to take up the internal issue of Iran to the United Nations Security Council on January 5.

At the special session called by the U.S., most of the Security Council members, including France, which is a political ally of the U.S., were highly critical of the Trump administration’s move. France’s Ambassador to the U.N., Francois Delattre, warned against “instrumentalisation of the protests from the outside” in the Security Council. The Russian Ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, was more forthright, asking why the issue of the “Black Lives Matter” protests in the U.S. was not taken up for discussion in the Security Council.

“The real reason for convening today’s meeting is not an attempt to protect human rights or promote the interests of the Iranian people, but rather a veiled attempt to use the current moment to undermine” the nuclear deal with Iran, the Russian envoy said. The Swedish and Bolivian Ambassadors said that domestic political issues had no place in the Security Council. The U.S. found itself in splendid isolation at the Security Council, with even the British Ambassador saying that Iran was in full compliance with the nuclear deal.

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