Protests commenced on December 28th in the holy city of Mashhad over the state of the economy and corruption (New York Times). It was difficult to judge the size of the demonstrations where many chanted “death to Rouhani”. Hardliners dominate Mashhad, including supporters of Ebrahim Raesi, who lost to President Hassan Rouhani in the May elections. Raesi has pressed the plight of the poor, a cause picked up by hardliners who say the Rouhani administration has failed to address rising inequality. Many believe it was Raesi’s camp that led the protests, while others say former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many are also saying the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was a mere rise in the price of eggs (Al Jazeera).
Chants of “death to Rouhani” and “death to high prices” soon gave way to chants targeting the entire Iranian government (IranWire). “Death to Dictator”—a favorite slogan of the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement—made a comeback. As in 2009, many nationalistic chants lashed out against Iran’s military operations in the region. To the outside observer, issues of military might and economic deprivation might not seem related, but for the Iranian public, the millions of dollars that Tehran spends on its allies in the region are directly linked to unfavorable economic conditions at home. “No Gaza, No Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran” some shouted, as well as “Leave Syria [or Palestine] alone, do something for us!” Some went even further and praised Reza Shah, the strongman founder of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925 to 1979), whom some Iranians regard as an example of competent governance.
There have been turbulent scenes in over 80 cities across Iran, including the capital (The Guardian). Videos posted on social networks appeared to show riot police becoming more confrontational. Similarly, protesters are seen attacking government buildings and shattering windows in an escalation of the unrest. In one instance, Iranian protesters took off a member of the security forces’ trousers and sent him stumbling and humiliated into the cold night (Telegraph).
Compared with 2009, the new protests lack any specific organization behind them (The Guardian). Many see this as an advantage because the state cannot easily crackdown by arresting a leader. Others see this as a disadvantage because they do not have a clear strategy on the next step.
After almost a week of demonstrations, thousands of pro-government counter protests took to the streets (The Guardian). Footage and images broadcasted by state television showed a high turnout in cities that saw unrest. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said forces were deployed to three provinces: Esfahan, Lorestan, and Hamadan. Jafari also said, “Today we can announce the end of the sedition. A large number of the trouble-makers have been arrested and there will be firm action against them.”
The strength of protests shaking Iran was unclear after a week of unrest (AP). It is not immediately clear if the drop in reports of new demonstrations challenging the Iranian government meant the protests are subsiding, or that the authorities’ blocking of social media apps has stopped protesters from offering new images of rallies.
The demonstrations have left at least 20 people dead, who have clashed with security forces in locations around the country (Washington Post).
The unrest in Iran is just “the beginning of a big movement” that could be more widespread than the 2009 Green Movement, according to Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer (AFP).
FYI: Lots of fake news is flooding the Iran protests conversation (Al Jazeera).
A video by Avant TV circulating on social media about Iran’s economic situation turned out to be produced by the IRGC (Al-Monitor). Regime production studios are creating videos that highlight economic anxieties and attack Rouhani’s handling of the government. These new productions are meant to look critical, but in the end, they reinforce a belief in the virtues and the leadership of the supreme leader. Avant TV is only the latest example of the ways in which factionalism within the Islamic Republic and opposition to the regime play out in the media landscape.
Who is protesting?
As protests erupted in more than 80 cities over the past week, Tehran remained mostly quiet (New York Times). Little of the action, either for or against the government, has found its way to the capital. That stands in sharp contrast to 2009, when millions of middle-class people in Tehran erupted in anger over an election they saw as rigged, into what became called the Green Movement. However, students at Tehran University also participated in demonstrations (IranWire).
These protests have been largely driven by rural areas, who have seized an opening to vent their frustrations with a political elite they say has hijacked the economy to serve its own interests (New York Times).
There is a growing consensus that the protests are comprised primarily of members of the working class, who are most vulnerable to chronic unemployment and a rises in the cost of living (LobeLog).
The protests have shocked many longtime Iran-watchers for one simple reason: They were talking to the wrong Iranians (Politico).
Here’s why Iran’s middle class is mostly sitting out the protests (BuzzFeed).
Iranians are torn between anger at their leaders and fears of becoming the next Syria (Jacobin Magazine).
The role of Telegram and censorship
Iranian authorities continued to restrict access to social media tools that have become key sources of information to anti-government demonstrators (New York Times). Telegram, a messaging widely used in Iran, was blocked, while internet access has been sporadically cut off to several cities where protests have taken place, according to cyber security researchers monitoring internet activity in the country. Access to other social media platforms like Instagram has also been intermittent.
“What’s happening in Iran is not like the Egyptian shutdown in January 2011, where they just pulled the plug on everything.” (BuzzFeed)
The Iranian government called on Telegram to block “terrorist channels” in an effort to quell protests (CNN). Iran's Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi said, “If [the] Telegram manager does not respect Iranians' demand, the application will be closed completely.” Telegram removed at least one opposition channel—Amad News—citing calls for violence, but CEO Pavel Durov has refused to shut down other channels that he has called peaceful. Exiled journalist Roohallah Zam reportedly runs Amad News, and has helped fan the passions of some of those who took to the streets (AP). Since the channel was removed, mirror channels have appeared with over 1.3 million subscribers.
Amad News has published fake news on numerous occasions, including this example (Twitter).
Also, a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace followed the activities of Iranian hackers for nearly a decade (New York Times). Incidents involving Iran have been among the most sophisticated, costly, and consequential attacks in the history of the Internet. Read the report here.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden said that if the Trump administration wants to provide support to the protesters, they can start by granting Iranians access to social media and messaging apps that are sanctioned (Twitter).
Will Telegram use its power wisely? (Politico)
Is this a women’s rights demonstration?
Many mistook the current unrest as part of a women’s rights movement (BuzzFeed). As protests gathered steam, an image of an Iranian woman waving her white headscarf on a busy street in Tehran has been widely shared online. The image of the brave woman led many to speculate the current protests were about women’s rights, and now the unidentified woman has become an iconic picture of the Iran protests.
Are women leading Iran's protests, or is the western media obsessed with feminism? (Newsweek)
Will it lead to regime change?
Protests in post-revolutionary Iran have historically been fueled by a desire to restore popular politics, not to overthrow the regime through revolution (LobeLog).
A second revolution in Iran? Not yet. (Washington Post)
Reactions of the Iranian government
President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that Iranians were unhappy about the state of economy, corruption, and a lack of transparency (The Guardian). Rouhani said, “People are allowed under the constitution to criticize or even protest but in a way that at the end they lead to a better situation in the country for the people.” Rouhani also condemned U.S. President Donald Trump, who has voiced support for the protests: “This gentleman who today sympathizes with our people has forgotten that a few months ago he called us a terrorist nation. The one who has opposed the Iranian nation from his head to his toe has no right to express sympathy for people of Iran.” (Read more about Trump’s comments in FOREIGN POLICY)
How President Rouhani can use the demonstrations to advance his reform agenda (Al-Monitor).
The supreme leader blamed Iran’s enemies for nationwide unrest (The Guardian). Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “In the events of the past few days, the enemies of Iran are deploying every means at their disposal including money, arms and political and intelligence support to coordinate making troubles for the Islamic establishment.”
Several Iranian officials blamed counter-revolutionaries and foreign governments, specifically the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for the demonstrations (Iran Primer).
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif weighed in on the protests on social media (Twitter). He said: “Iran's security and stability depend on its own people, who—unlike the peoples of Trump’s regional "best friends”—have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected, and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction.” Many Iranians criticized his Tweet citing how protesters in the 2009 Green Movement were treated.
The IRGC commander also hinted that a former government official may have been involved in initially starting the protests (Al-Monitor). Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari did not specify which former official he was speaking of, but some analysts speculate it’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been in a constant public battle with Iran’s judiciary over corruption cases involving his former cabinet members. Since the protests started, Ahmadinejad has been silent. Although Dolat-e Bahar—a website affiliated with him—published a letter reportedly by a group of Tehran University students demanding that President Rouhani resign and immediately hold elections.
State media coverage of the protests in Iran has been non-specific, providing outlines of what occurred and avoiding details, especially when it comes to protest chants (IranWire). News agencies also tended to avoid reports about outbreaks of violence between protesters and the police.
In a letter to the United Nations, Iran accused the U.S. of “grotesque” interference in its internal affairs (BBC). It said the U.S. leadership, in “numerous absurd tweets, [had] incited Iranians to engage in disruptive acts” which violated international law.
What are the reformists thinking?
As protests continue in various cities, reformists are asking Iranians to show restraint in expressing their discontent (Al-Monitor). While some reformists blamed their hardliner rivals for the unrest and generally had a conspiracy-oriented view of what was happening, others defended the public’s right to protest in the streets. Some reformists claimed that Ahmadinejad’s policies during his two terms (2005-2013) lie at the root of the current problems and social discontent. All of the reformists, however, had one thing in common: They urged people to avoid violence while protesting.
Why reformists do not empathize with the protesters (IranWire).
Some good analysis on the protests:
The unquestioning support of the rural people the Iranian government relied on against the discontent of the metropolitan elite is no more (New York Times).
There is little doubt that the economy rebounded after JCPOA, but did poverty and the living standards of ordinary Iranians also improve with this economic recovery? (Djavad Salehi)
Rhetoric, epistemology, and the Iranian protests (LobeLog).
Iran knows how to silence protests. If only it knew how to listen. (The Guardian)
Don't oversimplify the protests In Iran (NPR).
What are the lessons of the Arab uprisings for Iran’s protests? (Washington Post)
A different angle: What it’s like for the Iranian diaspora to watch protests unfold. (CNN)