Maziar Bahari is a former political prisoner and the editor of iranwire.com.
On Thursday, Dec. 28, a group of people gathered in the city of Mashhad and demonstrated against the Iranian government’s economic policies. This demonstration happened in a city that is holy for 250 million Shiite Muslims around the world; it is where Reza, the 8th Shiite imam, or saint, is buried. Imam Reza’s shrine is also a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that owns a number of industries, banks, hospitals and, of course, seminaries across Iran. The conglomerate runs under the supervision of the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The presence of the Imam Reza conglomerate makes Mashhad the third-most-important city in Iran, after the capital Tehran and the city of Qom, where most Iranian grand ayatollahs live. Different security and intelligence services, including Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, as well as the Revolutionary Guard Intelligence Unit and the police, keep a close eye on Mashhad to make sure it is safe for the millions of pilgrims from across Iran and up to 2.5 million Shiites from other countries who visit the city every year.
The symbolism of Thursday’s protests was therefore not lost on millions of Iranians in other cities who suffer from the same economic distress. If the people of Mashhad with all their constraints could do it, people in Rasht, Kermanshah, Isfahan, Sari and many other cities could take to the streets as well. Interestingly, unlike the 2009 Green Movement, which started in the capital, the recent protests were mostly in the provinces.
Encouraged by the small measure of space provided by the government for demonstrations in Mashhad, thousands of Iranians expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s economic and foreign policies, and their anger at the Islamist government that has been in power since 1979. The protesters have included government and private-sector employees who’ve seen prices going higher every day in recent years, retirees who don’t receive their pensions on time, people who have lost money in different investment schemes, and others who believe they’ve been deprived of their rights as Iranian citizens.
Many protesters chanted against recent developments that have served to only add insult to their injuries – both in terms of the government’s domestic policies and its dreams of hegemony in the region.
On Dec. 10, President Hassan Rouhani presented his budget, which essentially would make life more expensive for citizens and, at the same time, include generous allocations for religious organizations in Iran and elsewhere. The slogan “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I Give My Life for Iran” was repeated in the protests across different cities. Many Iranians regard their government’s generous help to the Palestinian Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah, Syrian Assad regime and Yemeni Houthis as unnecessary and even treasonous.
Despite people’s passion and energy, no one knows what is happening in Iran. Analysts are confused and mostly silent. And the people on the streets are not supporting any individual or group; they have chanted slogans against Rouhani and Khamenei, but unlike in 2009, there are no leaders to guide them.
Rouhani has, at the time of this writing, reportedly gathered his ministers and advisers to assess the situation. So far, Rouhani’s government has managed only to blame the demonstrations on its conservative critics. Rouhani’s vice president has implied that the hard-liners are using people’s economic problems to bring down the government. Some hard-liners have been happy about the anti-Rouhani slogans, but many of them have chastised protesters for chanting slogans against the supreme leader, who is supposed to be a sacred being.
Hundreds of people have been arrested in cities around Iran in the past 48 hours. No one has been released as of this writing. It would be interesting to know what their interrogations have been about and what charges are being brought against them.
The demonstrations have shown the dissatisfaction of Iranians with the regime as a whole — both the so-called pro-reform Rouhani and the conservative Khamenei. Dealing with this outbreak of hatred may unify the regime for a short while, but, inevitably, the factions will start their infighting again. Rouhani and Khamenei have different interests and bases of support. They cannot coexist peacefully and simultaneously cater to their constituencies.
Rouhani cannot ignore the destructive role of the ayatollah’s cohorts in the Revolutionary Guard and their firm grip on the economy. The Guards practically run Iran’s policies in the wider region — including supporting Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah – and they have made a mockery of Rouhani’s attempts at rapprochement with Iran’s neighbors and the West.
The supreme leader, in turn, cannot satisfy millions of Iranians who want prosperity and freedom and also maintain the support of his fanatic die-hard supporters who have been enjoying power for the past four decades.
Is it a revolution? Not yet. Iran’s government is its own worst enemy and the Iranian people know it. Economic woes leading to infighting can bring down this corrupt and brutal system. Different factions within the government will, most probably, and just the same as always, choose to dismiss the genuine economic grievances of the Iranian people and blame the protests on foreign agents and an international imperialist-Zionist conspiracy.
The Iranian people have learned, after living almost 40 years under the Islamic Republic, to gradually and intelligently raise their voices in peaceful protests that will provoke the government to tear itself apart. Iran’s rulers may choose to blame foreigners and Zionists — but they hardly realize that the true danger to their power is right at home.