For decades Iranians have risen up, only to be repressed

Iranians were appalled by the downing of the Ukrainian jetliner, which killed all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians.
Tuesday 14/01/2020
In this July 14, 1999 file photo, one of many Muslim hard-line clerics leads tens of thousands of people during a rally outside Tehran University. (AP)
In this July 14, 1999 file photo, one of many Muslim hard-line clerics leads tens of thousands of people during a rally outside Tehran University. (AP)

DUBAI - Demonstrations that erupted after Iran admitted to accidentally shooting down a passenger plane during a tense standoff with the United States are the latest of waves of protest going back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, all of which have been violently suppressed.

Iranians were appalled by the downing of the Ukrainian jetliner, which killed all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians. Many are angry at the government's misleading statements immediately after the tragedy, which it initially blamed on a technical problem.

Iranians also suffer from an economic crisis exacerbated by severe sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump after he withdrew from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Trump has encouraged the protests, even as he has embraced other autocrats who smother dissent. His administration hopes that the demonstrations, along with crippling US sanctions, will bring about a fundamental change in a long-time adversary.

However, large numbers of Iranians support the clerically led government, as seen by the massive turnout for the funeral of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top general, who was killed in a US air strike in Baghdad. Even critics of the government saw him as a war hero who helped defeat the Islamic State and resisted Western hegemony in the Middle East.

Iranian security forces have shown in the past that they will use deadly force against anyone threatening the Islamic Republic, most recently in November, when rights groups say hundreds of people were killed in demonstrations sparked by a hike in petrol prices.

Here is a look at protests in Iran and how its theocracy prevailed.

- Islamic Revolution -

The 1979 Islamic Revolution began with broad-based protests that forced the Western-backed monarchy from power. However, in the resulting chaos, hard-line followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini moved to sideline left-wing and moderate opposition groups, forcing many Iranians into prison or exile and establishing a firm foundation for clerical rule. Iran suppressed a rebellion from among its Kurdish minority in a years-long military campaign. In 1988, at the close of the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, Iran is believed to have executed thousands of political prisoners, something authorities have yet to publicly acknowledge.

- Student uprising -

The closure of a reformist newspaper in 1999 ignited a week of student protests. On July 9, security forces and hard-line vigilantes stormed a student dormitory at Tehran University. At least three people were killed and 1,200 arrested in the unrest, which spread to other cities. The protests unfolded amid a power struggle between Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a popular reformist, and hardliners who dominated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the security apparatus. The hardliners prevailed and the resulting crackdown set back reform efforts for a decade.

- The Green Movement -

The largest and most sustained protests since the Islamic Revolution erupted in the summer of 2009, after the reformist opposition disputed the re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Millions of Iranians took part in months of protests in major cities. Green Movement leaders did not call for the overthrow of the system but for the reversal of the allegedly rigged election, greater social freedoms and the reining in of the security forces.

Authorities responded with a massive crackdown. The IRGC and its volunteer force, the Basij militia, fired on protesters and carried out a wave of arrests. Opposition leaders were placed under house arrest and silenced in the largely state-run media.

US President Barack Obama came under criticism for not offering a full-throated endorsement of the protests but it's unclear if that would have made a difference and it might have fed into hardliners' allegations that the protests were part of a Western plot.

- Economic protests -

Since withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, Trump has imposed “maximum” sanctions on Iran that he says are aimed at countering its nuclear programme and its support for armed groups across the region. The sanctions, including those targeting the vital oil industry, have eviscerated Iran's economy, wiping away many people's life savings and fuelling high unemployment.

In the 18 months since the United States restored sanctions, Iran has seen waves of sporadic, leaderless protests initially focused on economic grievances and perceived corruption among the clerical elite and the IRGC. Each time, the protests rapidly escalated into chants against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calls for the end of clerical rule.

Protests have often turned violent and security forces responded with deadly force. In the most recent and deadly wave of protests, in November, authorities closed access to the internet for several days, making it difficult to discern the scale of the protests and the resulting crackdown.

Amnesty International estimated that more than 300 people were killed.