Anti-government Protests in Iran: Motives and Obstacles

Majid Vazifeh Amandi

Ph.D. Student at Humboldt University of Berlin

Foto: Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

In last seven days we saw protests in Iran`s different cities from capital city of Tehran to smallest towns in center and south of the country. This protests started from the second largest and religious city of Mashhad that is the symbolic city in Shiite faith with the slogans like „Marg Bar Ruhani„ (Death to Ruhani) and some other economic based slogans. Then we observed protests in other regions around the country like Kermanshah, Qom, Khuzestan, Rasht, Isfahan and other small cities. After clashes between people and governmental forces, the protests that were mostly peaceful mixed with violence and the result was fire in banks, some governmental buildings, police centers and battle in streets and at the end, more than 20 death and hundreds of arrests.

When we look at these protests we face some questions like, why these protests are happening? Which groups take part in it? Which groups are out of that and why? And what we expect for upcoming days?

For the first question we should tell that protests in Iran`s society is one of the facts that we see frequently in contemporary history. If we focus on past 20 years, we see some major protests in 1999, 2009 and now 2017-2018. These protests (and some other small) have some common features but they happened in different context. When we look at the protests that are happening now, we see the economic problems in the center of demands (especially at the beginning of the protests) but by continuing the protests the slogans are becoming political and protestors now started to use slogans against Islamic Republic (asking for Iranian Republic), Criticizing Iranian governmental politics in region (in countries like Palestine, Lebanon and Syria), using slogans against Islamic clerics and governmental authorities and passing strong redlines in Iran`s formal political culture. The protestors mostly are from lower class and down middle class that are really in economic problem and are facing all pressure that comes from past economic boycotts related to nuclear program and other problems that exists between Islamic Republic and western countries. So, at this situation people are disappointed and see the governmental actors as the source of the problem: „They live in high standards (with corruption-the concept that is very common in Iran for years both in formal and informal spheres) and we have to face the problems comes from what they did„, the problems like embezzlement and peculation were very common in Iran`s economy in last years. So, as a result people try to target governors and the whole system as the source for their problem.

In view to this protests class, political views and ethnicity are important in analyzing what is happening.

As viewpoint of class, most of the protesters are from lower class that has economic problems at the center of their wants. Here we can see that middle class didn`t take part in protests, the evidence for this was Tehran`s protests that unlike 2009`s protests most of the people didn`t come to streets, and the protests were strong in small and economically destitute cities. In other word, protests were strong in rural provinces rather than rich ones and there was strong collision in rural cities and most of the dead are in these regions. Unemployment for the young (50% of Iran`s population is under 30) besides high rates of continuing inflation, unreal slogans and false promises from governmental officials for years were very good reason for whom they see themselves in a difficult situation. These economic problems that mostly target lower class become intense and without any solution for years and a good reason for explosion against government. Chaos and fire could be result of this continuing severe situation.

As ideology, when we look at the slogans, Iranian monarchists-nationalists (the groups that defend last Pehlevi government (1925-1979)) are heard more than other groups. „Shah Bargard be Iran„ (King come back to Iran) or „Ma Ariya`yi Hastim-Arab Nemiparastim„ (We are Arians and we don’t worship Arabs) are the slogans that were common in the last week`s protests. So, this political line was common at the protests in different cities and especially in Fars populated ones. By the media that this group has and the previous shahs (Mohammadreza Pahlavi) son that lives in US they tried to lead the protests or at least make it bigger. But exactly because of this, Iranian Turks (Azerbaijanis) and also other ethnics like Kurds didn`t take part in the protests as should they do. They have common economic problems with other ethnics but not same political view. Iranian Azerbaijanis have nearly one-third of Iran`s population and with a long history of battle with Pehlevi monarchy in Iran. By this, Azerbaijanis that live from far North-West of Iran to capital city Tehran -with central city of Tabriz- have different political views than Fars ethnic group. We can say that there is a political-cultural gap between Turks and Farses. In the past 25 years, Azerbaijani people had their own social movement, protests and political flourish. This political progress had different wishes that based on Azerbaijani ethnicity, democratic rights for Azerbaijani people that are living in Iranian Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani language and culture. The main protests in Iranian Azerbaijan happened in 2006 and 2015 that both were against racist declarations of Iranian national wide media. Also, between these two years some protests happened with the aim of saving Azerbaijani nature, Urmia Lake and condemning Iran`s government in not having enough effort for saving the nature.

By the look at recent history of protests in Iran we see that Azerbaijani forces didn`t take part in 2009 protests too and as we see they do not take part in ongoing protests in 2017-2018. As it told, there is an ideological and political gap between Iran`s ethnics especially between Azerbaijanis and Fars ethnic group. This gap is mostly is in the way that they see the future not as they describe the current situation. As opposition all of these groups define current situation in same way or at least in similar way. By focusing at what happened in 20-25 years in Iran`s streets we can say that all groups do not act in harmonic pattern. Other ethnic groups like Kurds and Baluch`s have their own way in encountering what happens in Tehran or other mostly populated Fars and central cities. Iranian ethnic groups maybe have common problems in the land that they are living but they don’t have same understanding about the future. This put Iranian opposition in confused situation and in some cases they are not able in analyzing what is happening.

So, class, political beliefs and ethnicity were three major factors that are playing role in ongoing protests and as it expected these three major factors will be effective on what will happen in the future. The protests that have continued for their seventh day are going to be controlled by the governmental forces and for the other reasons like not having powerful leadership, facing communicational problems like filtering and slow internet, problems in organizing the forces and also, being extremist in their slogans and acts and forcing other groups away it will not successful in spreading and being powerful.

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