Mass arrests follow unprecedented wave of unrest in Iran as more turbulence looms

55% of Iranians believe “domestic economic mismanagement and corruption” had the greatest negative impact on Iran’s economy.
Sunday 01/12/2019
A tool of repression. Members of the Basij during a gathering in Tehran, November 27.(AFP)
A tool of repression. Members of the Basij during a gathering in Tehran, November 27.(AFP)

ISTANBUL - Following an unprecedented wave of unrest in Iran with record numbers of protesters on the streets around the country, the Tehran regime has arrested thousands but is unlikely to prevent further eruptions of public dissatisfaction, analysts say.

Giving a glimpse into the scale of what may have been the biggest anti-government protests in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, officials said 200,000 people had taken part and 7,000 were arrested when public anger about a steep rise in the price of petrol on November 15 triggered countrywide demonstrations.

Iran has given no official death toll but Amnesty International said it had documented at least 143 protesters’ deaths. Tehran has rejected this figure, but a number anywhere close to that would make it the deadliest anti-government unrest at least since the authorities put down protests that surrounded the disputed 2009 presidential election and probably since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah and swept clerics to power.

Unlike the 2009 Green Movement protests or the 2017 economic ones, demonstrations this month rapidly turned violent within a day, showing the boiling anger of many as the country’s economy struggles under renewed American sanctions.

Arif Keskin, a Middle East expert in Turkey and editor of Maduniyet, a magazine on Iran studies, said Iran was experiencing a growing confrontation between major parts of the population and the regime.

“There is no space left for people to voice criticism and express grievances,” Keskin said by telephone. “So the protests are getting tougher.”

Keskin added the protest movement did not have ideological roots but involved demands for economic and political change. He said the movement had support from the middle classes as well as from the lower classes, who drove the 1979 revolution. “The regime is losing the support of the lower classes,” Keskin said. “The protests are also countrywide and they involve everyone, from the Kurds to the Arabs.”

“The fact that the protests went on for days, that hundreds were killed, thousands injured and thousands arrested, that hundreds of banks and government buildings were torched shows us what has become of politics in Iran.”

A near-total internet blackout was imposed by the Islamic Republic on November 16, the day after the government made the shock announcement that petrol prices were immediately going up by as much as 200%.  This, though the price increases have been lifted, and a lack of official figures about victims of the violence makes it difficult to get the whole picture of the crackdown. The New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch accused Tehran of “deliberately covering up” deaths and arrests.

Iranian officials have blamed the street violence on the intervention of “thugs” backed by royalists and Iran’s arch-enemies — the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Iranian people extinguished “a very dangerous deep conspiracy that cost so much money and effort.” He praised the police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij, the volunteer force of the Guards, for “entering the field and carrying out their task in a very difficult confrontation.”

Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, described the protests as being orchestrated by “global arrogance,” a term he often uses to refer to the United States, “and Zionists.” He described America as seeing the price hikes as an “opportunity” to bring their “troops” to the field but the “move was destroyed by the people.”

Citing the intelligence ministry’s counter-espionage department, Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported  that eight people who have been accused of having links to the American CIA and of gathering information to send abroad had been arrested. A senior commander of the IRGC urged the country’s judiciary to mete out harsh sentences to protesters.

The tough response has not been balanced by signs that the government takes the criticism by the protesters seriously. But blaming outside forces for economic difficulties at home does not convince a majority of Iranians, a recent poll for the Centre for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and the Canadian polling firm IranPoll suggested.

Even though Iran’s economic woes have worsened since the escalation of US sanctions since May, 55% of Iranians questioned in October told pollsters that “domestic economic mismanagement and corruption” had the greatest negative impact on Iran’s economy, the survey showed.

Keskin said the government’s failure to handle the protest in a more constructive way meant that more unrest was under way.

“The Iranian society wants concrete change,” he said. Corruption and nepotism were seen as major problems. “But the state is not prepared to solve them,” Keskin said.

He added the frequency of unrest in Iran was increasing. “It took nearly a decade from the Green Movement in 2009 to the 2017 protests, but it took just two years to the 2019 unrest,” Keskin said. “That means another explosion could come sooner rather than later.”

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