Jan 2nd 2018
INCREDIBLY, religious hardliners may have started the protests that have spread across Iran. Preachers in Mashhad, Iran’s second city and a stronghold of the clerical regime, called their followers onto the streets on December 28th to protest against rising prices, most recently of eggs. Many of those who turned out supported Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric, in the presidential election last May. “Death to Rouhani,” they chanted, referring to President Hassan Rouhani, whose liberal economic policies they oppose and whose budget in December called for sweeping subsidy cuts.
But their cries have been drowned out by a far broader swathe of Iranian malcontents. Even as the hardliners retreated, the protests spread to more than 20 cities, where Iranians of all stripes voiced pent-up anger over a lack of economic and political progress. The protests have also spread to Tehran, the capital, where hundreds of people have been arrested. After six days the tone of the rallies is changing. Many now call for the downfall of the ruling clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s Praetorian Guard, who also dominate much of the economy.
The demonstrations have not been on the same scale as those by the Green Movement, which shook Iran’s clerical establishment in 2009. Hundreds of thousands of protesters came out then, mostly in Tehran, to challenge a disputed presidential election. The latest rallies have attracted only thousands, mostly in towns and small cities. At their root are broad socioeconomic grievances. Unlike in 2009, there is no obvious leadership. That may be why the authorities initially responded with a relatively soft touch. They have deployed the police, not the IRGC. Mr Rouhani has even sanctioned peaceful protest.
Anger, for various reasons, has been brewing for months. Residents of the predominantly Kurdish north-west are upset with the government’s nonchalant response to a devastating earthquake in November. Thousands are still spending the winter in temporary shelters. Tehran has faced protests by customers of informal financial institutions, many associated with the IRGC, who lost their life savings when the institutions went bust. Factory workers and pensioners say they have not been paid for months. Mr Rouhani’s government trumpets falling inflation and economic growth, but youth unemployment has risen to 27%, the prices of some basic goods have soared and inequality is growing.
“We don’t want an Islamic republic,” chant the protesters. Also, “Death to the Revolutionary Guards” and “People are paupers while the mullahs live like gods.” But in contrast to 2009 they are not lining up with reformists against hardliners—they are wishing a plague on both their houses and bashing all pillars of the regime with rarely voiced venom. “No to conservatives and reformers alike,” is another popular slogan. Some have wondered aloud why the regime is spending the country’s wealth to support militant groups in Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine, and a blood-soaked dictator in Syria. “Leave Syria, remember us,” is another oft-heard chant.
Iran’s rulers still hope they can assuage the anger. “We urge senior authorities of the Islamic Republic to revise the country’s macro policies and hear people’s voices,” said the Assembly of Qom Seminary’s Teachers and Scholars, a powerful caucus of Shia clerics whose ranks fill the theocratic regime.
But Mr Rouhani’s promise to listen has so far failed to stem the protests, and the authorities are increasingly resorting to force. The government has shut down popular social-media apps, such as Telegram, which has been used to organise rallies. The riot police in Tehran have driven their water cannon through the streets to deter protesters. In smaller cities and towns, less-experienced authorities have opened fire. Five people were killed in Qahderijan and six in Tuyserkan—western towns of around 50,000 people. Over 20 people have been killed across the country. As in the Arab spring of 2011, the periphery is driving the unrest and the killing is adding to the discontent. Protesters have since attacked police stations and toppled portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If the police fail to contain the unrest, warns an IRGC spokesman, the protesters will face an “iron fist”.