The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The rage and despair of the Iranian people are flowing onto the streets

Protesters set fires as they block the roads during a demonstration against a gasoline price hike in Tehran in 2019. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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As anyone who follows Iranian affairs will tell you, one way to measure the seriousness of the uprisings against the Islamic republic is to consider anti-regime slogans — and how personal the protesters are willing to get with them. The fact that demonstrators on streets across Iran are currently calling for the death of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi, and for the downfall of the Iranian regime, should leave no doubt about the depth of the protesters’ rage and despair.

The protests began last week over the regime’s increasing inability to provide the basic goods and services it has subsidized for decades, after prices of bread, eggs and cooking oil skyrocketed as much as 300 percent. Pasta, a low-cost staple of the Iranian diet, quadrupled in price overnight.

In the ensuing violent crackdown, at least five people have been killed and countless more arrested. Internet connectivity has been restricted or completely blocked in some areas, and state media is not allowed to cover news of street clashes. Still, images of brutality aimed at the most vulnerable, including the elderly, have spread around the world.

Are these the protests that will end in the regime’s downfall? No. At the same time, the regime has no remedy for the current set of complaints — which means they will continue, becoming even more frequent as public desperation grows.

Predictably, the regime used its propaganda networks to divert attention from the protests and even blame them on foreigners. But if the state is no longer able to buy people’s acquiescence, as it has throughout much of its 43-year history, there is very little else it can offer. It’s difficult to envision anything but mounting frustration for ordinary citizens.

There is a direct through line between these protests and ones that erupted in 2017 and then again in late 2019 and early 2020. Those, too, were precipitated by price increases for subsidized goods and fuel — and the perceived incompetence and corruption of the regime. The 2019-2020 demonstrations were exacerbated when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a civilian aircraft shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s international airport, and then tried to cover it up.

Previous protests that swept across urban Iran after the contested election of 2009 and continued into 2011 were considered to be an urban middle-class movement. The locations of current protests are less predictable, often happening first in areas where a basic necessity has become scarce and spreading to nearby communities. The most intense demonstrations thus far have been in the cities of Sureshjan, Shahr-e Kord, Babaheydar, Farsan, Hafshejan and Junqan — all in the southwestern province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari.

“These are small cities and towns where most people know each other. But they are risking their lives and safety, which means the protests likely go beyond just discontent with the price hikes,” an Iranian journalist told me.

Another factor is the ever-growing wealth gap, and the obvious corruption and hoarding it represents.

“While the middle class has shrunk and the overall economic situation has worsened, we are also seeing lavish shopping complexes filled with luxury popping up across the country,” a Tehran-based analyst told me. (I am omitting the analyst’s and journalist’s names for their security.)

With voter turnout in tightly controlled and increasingly uncompetitive elections dwindling during recent cycles, Iranians have decided that flooding the streets to express their frustrations over the absence of representative governance is the only way they will be heard.

“People have come to hate the system and the way it rules,” the journalist explained. “It’s a corrupt and incompetent system that inflicts misery on millions. The segment of Iranian society that’s fed up with the system is growing.”

Given that the regime has a poor record of valuing the lives of its citizens in moments of domestic turmoil, however, I fear that the number of people risking detention, intimidation or even death will grow.

This month alone, several Westerners have been taken hostage — including two French citizens who state media is ridiculously claiming helped incite the protests. Another hostage is being threatened with imminent execution, and several female media workers have been arrested without explanation.

These are unmistakable signs of weakness and an acknowledgment that the regime believes it is under attack from all angles. But instead of bending to meet the demands of the Iranian people, it continually chooses to double down on its worst tendencies.

Just look at its stance on negotiations to return to a nuclear deal with the West: Cash-strapped and unable to legally sell its oil to most of the world because of U.S. sanctions, the regime is in desperate need of a deal to lift those restrictions. And yet it has made a series of demands that is more ideological than practical, creating a perhaps insurmountable roadblock to renewing the nuclear deal.

Any political order derives its legitimacy from the agreements — explicit and unspoken — it strikes with its subjects and with the rest of the world. In Iran, both arrangements currently appear to be rotting beyond repair.

Look inside the life of a family whose husband and father is held hostage in Iran. Post Opinions’ new short film shows the ordeal to free him:

When American Emad Shargi is taken hostage by Iran as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., his wife and daughters must fight to free him. (Video: The Washington Post)