A 19-year-old participant in Iran’s recent street protests says that while the wave of public demonstrations has subsided, the antiestablishment unrest in December and early January opened many Iranians’ eyes and the underlying anger remains.
“Nothing [the authorities] do will decrease people’s anger and frustration,” Hadi, the son of a working-class family in the northwestern city of Tabriz, told RFE/RL.
Tabriz is one of more than 90 cities and towns where protests were unleashed after a Dec. 28 demonstration in Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city, over rising prices and other grievances.
At least 22 people are thought to have been killed in the unrest, which targeted government policies but also featured chants against Iran’s clerically dominated system and attacks on police and other official institutions.
The demonstrations have tapered off in the past week amid a pushback by authorities that included harsh warnings and a conspicuous show of force by security troops, the blocking of Internet access and social media, and reports of three deaths in custody and thousands of arrests.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials have blamed the flare-up on foreign “enemies.”
But President Hassan Rohani took a different tack, leaving open the possibility of foreign influence but adding, “We can’t say that whoever who has taken to the street has orders from other countries.” Rohani acknowledged that “people had economic, political, and social demands” and said Iranians “have a legitimate right to demand that we see and hear them and look into their demands.”
Iranian officials were said to have eased some of the price increases stoking some of the protests.
Won’t get ‘fooled’ again
Hadi, who asked RFE/RL not to publish his last name, dismissed that and other steps as mere attempts to ward off public anger in the short term and said he thought such tactics have lost their effectiveness.
“They may decrease the price of eggs, thinking that they can fool people. But people are now very much aware,” Hadi said.
Hadi talked of his own frustration at being accepted into Iran’s Islamic Azad University but being unable to afford the school’s fees.
“My father says [Islamic Republic of Iran founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] promised that we won’t even pay for water, [that revolutionaries] said they would give everyone free housing,” he said, adding that four decades later many Iranians struggle to make ends meet.
Hadi said he and dozens of others took to the streets of Tabriz to complain of high prices, poverty, and repression in a country where he says authorities “bully” citizens.
The protests, Iran’s largest since a disputed election sent millions into the streets in 2009, were initially fueled by economic grievances and mostly young citizens frustrated by an ailing economy and a potentially bleak future.
Some Iranians envisaged rising prosperity two years after an international deal traded sanctions relief for checks on Tehran’s nuclear program, and Rohani campaigned for election in 2013 and reelection last year pledging mild reforms and more jobs.
Angry young men
A journalist in Tehran who did not want to be named attributed the protests to “angry young men” disappointed by reformists and conservatives, with no hope in the future.
“They have nothing to lose,” said the reporter, who had witnessed several protests in the Iranian capital.
The demonstrations morphed quickly into protests against the clerical establishment and the country’s leaders. Protesters called for an “Iranian republic” instead of an “Islamic republic,” while some complained that the clerics who have been ruling Iran since the 1979 revolution should “get lost.”
Many demonstrators also complained of Iran’s actions in the Middle East, including its military and other support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aid to militants in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon. They said Tehran should instead focus its resources on Iranians.
“Where in the world does a government spend its money on another country?” Hadi said. “[Assad] supports Iran because he is investing Iran’s money in his country.”
Hadi said he was frustrated at Rohani for abandoning social and economic promises: “He should take action, not just talk. He made many promises four years ago, but he hasn’t achieved them.”
But Hadi primarily blamed Khamenei — who, as supreme leader, holds the final word on religious and political affairs in Iran — for the state of affairs in the country, including the ailing economy and corruption.
“He is the main culprit, and his establishment,” Hadi said, adding that Iranian leaders “don’t know how to rule.”
Khamenei was the target of some of the chants, with protesters shouting, “Death to the Dictator!” and, “Death to Khamenei!” in many places.
Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said last week that the people and security forces had ended the unrest, which it said was fomented by Iran’s foreign enemies.
Former student leader Ali Afshari, who has been tortured in an Iranian jail for protesting against the establishment, also warned that there could be more unrest in Iran’s future.
“The forces that took part in these protests are different than those behind other demonstrations we’ve seen in past years,” said Afshari, who now lives in the United States. “They came out because of their basic needs; and since the establishment has serious problems on the economic front, it doesn’t have the ability to respond to these needs.”
Afshari predicted the latest wave of protests would mark a “turning point” in Iran’s modern political history.
“The geographical scope of these protests were unprecedented in Iran’s recent history. Within a week, protests were held spontaneously in 82 cities across Iran.”
Meanwhile in Tabriz, Hadi insisted that the rage that sent him and others into to the streets won’t go away.
“This regime has to go, that’s what I want,” he said. “In Tabriz, we say that now the regime is even afraid or our silence.”
Accounts are just starting to emerge of detainees locked up in connection with the protests, and Iranian officials continue to block many social-media networks and other sources of information, including Western radio and television.
“Even if there are no more protests [right now], it will explode one day,” Hadi said. “This is not the end.”