What Tehran fears is bread rioters joining ranks with freedom seekers
A peaceful protest in Mashhad, in north-eastern Iran, against rising food prices was the catalyst for violence that spread across the country. More than 20 people have been killed and the events have attracted international attention as analysts pondered the implications.
However, bread riots alone aren’t likely to shake the foundations of the Islamic Republic. What the regime fears most is that rare twinning when those who demand bread join the ranks of those who demand freedom. These have been rare in Iran.
Following the 1979 revolution and its tumultuous aftermath, the regime consolidated its rule and effectively suppressed all internal opposition. Revolutionary fervour, the war with Iraq, a new mood of nationalism and a spirit of self-sacrifice drew Iranians to rally around the flag. Except for very occasional anti-war demonstrations (towards the end of the war with Iraq), the regime did not face serious challenges.
The spirit of self-sacrifice vanished after the war ended in 1988. It was replaced by rising public expectations and the much promised “peace dividend.” Ignoring those expectations, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iranian president from August 1989-August 1997, tried to reform Iran’s economy according to International Monetary Fund prescriptions. The short-term effects of the reforms were catastrophic. Inflation soared 50% and poorer Iranians longed for the war years when coupons for subsidised foodstuffs at least ensured survival.
In May 1992, trouble started in Mashhad when a 10-year-old boy was killed as local authorities tried to bulldoze shantytowns. Riots erupted with mobs attacking police station and forcedthe police to disarm, looted banks and burned government offices to the ground. The riots spread to Arak in Markazi province, Mobarakeh in Isfahan province and the Chahardangeh neighbourhood of Tehran. It was with some difficulty that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) imposed order in the affected areas.
On April 4, 1995, Eslamshahr, a poor suburb of Tehran, became the scene of another major anti-government riot. Bus drivers protested insufficient supplies of petrol. Commuters protested a 30% increase in fares from the suburbs to central Tehran. Together, they mobilised thousands. It’s estimated that 50,000 people descended on petrol stations and government buildings and blocked the roads to the capital. IRGC special operations forces dispersed the rioters but only after 50 people were killed.
By July 9, 1999, economic protests were no longer in focus. President Mohammad Khatami’s promise of political liberalisation raised young people’s hopes for change. University students protested the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam and riot police responded by raiding a dormitory at Tehran University. A student was killed, sparking six days of protests and rioting throughout the country.
The Green Movement of 2009 was another example of a political uprising that was provoked by a controversial election, one that secured President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office.
However, the protests mobilised sections of the underprivileged who felt betrayed by the government. Millions all over the country took to the streets in protest of the election results but the rallies soon developed into anti-regime demonstrations. More than 125 protesters, including Neda Agha-Soltan, who became the face of public resistance, died at the hands of the IRGC and the Basij militia. It was only then that the regime regained control.
The latest protests were born out of the economic hardship faced by Iranians disappointed by President Hassan Rohani. His promise of improving the situation of Iranian households has yet to materialise.
The IRGC initially welcomed and even fanned the flames of the protests in the hope they would weaken the Rohani administration but the protesters did not restrict themselves to attacking Rohani. They also chanted slogans against the clerical establishment, the IRGC’s military adventurism in the region and the regime overall.
In the past, the Islamic Republic managed to survive bread riots. It has suppressed spontaneous movements demanding freedom. As long as the two strands remain distinct and the opposition to the regime is disunited, the IRGC can use public discontent to consolidate its control.