Iran cracks down on protesters
Despite desperate attempts by Iranian authorities to minimise their importance, street protests in more than 50 towns and cities sent a damning message to the clerical establishment.
That it is left shaken is obvious. Despite Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s claim of tolerating Iranians’ right to protest, Tehran has cracked down hard. The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, sent armed forces to Isfahan, Lorestan and Hamadan provinces to thwart “the new sedition.”
Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, threatened the death penalty even as he equated the demonstrations with “waging war against God.” It switched off messaging apps, such as Telegram, and virtual private networks — VPNs — that bypass internet restrictions.
Amnesty International reported on January 4 that “more than 1,000 people have been arrested and detained in jails notorious for torture.”
Even if they manage to muzzle their population, however, the authorities will have to reckon with the new realities laid bare by the protests. The demonstrators showed that many Iranians are no longer in awe of the cult of extreme veneration of the supreme leader — 78-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and other senior clerics. Some even shouted nostalgic slogans that referred to Iran’s last shah, Reza Pahlavi.
The protests, triggered by rising food prices and economic grievances, evolved into something broader. They have become an expression of hostility to the political power enjoyed by the clerics, as well as their policies at home and abroad.
The protesters showed themselves to be resentful of profligate and corrupt practices of those at the very top of the pyramid of power. Rohani was re-elected last year on a promise of greater prosperity for the many but poor Iranians have not benefited much. The 2015 lifting of sanctions in exchange for a curbed Iranian nuclear programme has not yielded the promised economic benefits.
Iran’s economy remains hamstrung by such structural problems as the vast control exerted by the IRGC in almost every sector of economic activity.
Charities and front companies connected to the IRGC operate opaquely and with impunity. Iran’s ruling class imports thousands of luxury cars each year.
The resentment over Iran’s costly adventures abroad has been palpable. Demonstrators chanted: “Leave Syria, remember us.” Iran has allocated billions of dollars to back its allies and proxies in Syria, as well as in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Gaza and elsewhere. The domestic costs of this foreign adventurism are woefully apparent.