Iran was struck by a wave of anti-government and pro-government rallies during a period spanning the end of December 2017 and the beginning of January 2018. The anti-government demonstrators were drawn to action as a result of the rising prices of basic goods (specifically eggs and poultry), alleged corruption, lack of personal freedom and the country’s potentially costly and very controversial involvement in foreign conflicts, with the rallies first stirring up in Mashhad, the second most populated city in Iran. The next day, the unrest exploded into demonstrations ranging from the west city of Kermanshah to the capital city of Tehran in the north.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the target of much of the protesters’ anger, along with the president, Hassan Rouhani, with individuals calling for them to step down and some even calling for their deaths. Crowds tore down billboards and burned banners with the supreme leader’s face on them. According to the Guardian, recordings were published on social media of people chanting “Leave Syria, think about us”, in light of the Iranian government choosing to back Syria’s president in his country’s civil war. The Shia militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are also supported by Iran’s foreign policy, to the outrage of many citizens and other world leaders.
Two days after the streets of Iranian cities first flooded with crowds, the protests became violent. Two agitators were shot, but it was unclear whether the guns were fired by police officers or by a civilian. In Tehran, police officers in full riot gear were almost immediately summoned by authorities to the site of the protest: Vali-e Asr Square. They fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators and by the end of the six days of ongoing and increasingly sporadic rallies, at least 450 individuals had been arrested and 21 had been killed.
Large unauthorized political protests are uncommon in the country, as security services are ubiquitous and consequences can be extremely severe. These demonstrations are described as the largest in nearly a decade, measuring up to the 2009 protests that occurred post-election. In 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad won the election by a wide margin, shocking all opposition supporters, who trusted polls that pointed towards a different, less divisive figure winning the election. Protests and riots broke out, with countless accusations of fraud, lying and deception being thrown at the newly elected president. The government then organised counter protests, which are honored annually, with people often being bused into the capital city to march along the streets in support of the government.
Government officials were left unsure how to respond to the startling torrent of opposition they received at the end of 2017. The recent anti-government protests occurred a few days before the scheduled pro-government protests, which saw tens of thousands of people rallying in support of Iran’s leaders. These pro-government protests are organised by the state, and this year they took on a new significance, as the country’s leaders looked to overpower the anger and disdain of a few days past by encouraging people to show support. Eshaq Jahangiri, the vice president and close ally of Rouhani, cast the blame for the cause of the protests on conservative adversaries of the president.
The Interior Ministry advised Iranian citizens to “[not] participate in these illegal gatherings as they will create problems for themselves and other citizens,” according to BBC. Officials tried and succeeded at shutting down Amad News, the Iranian channel on the messaging app Telegram, accusing the platform of exhorting citizens to be violent with police officers. By the use of Twitter, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, recommended for the founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov to shut down Amad News.
More participation was seen from younger people in the anti-government protests, as they are more severely affected by the staggering economy, with a large proportion of young adults in mid-sized communities living in poverty and unemployment, seeing little hope for the future. According to the Statistical Centre of Iran, a shocking 12.4% of the population is unemployed, an increase of 1.4% from the previous year. Extensive economical benefits were promised by Rouhani when he achieved a deal with dominant world powers to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting oil and financial sanctions. These benefits are yet to spring up, as the country’s economic and political stability continues to falter.
The government in Iran has been mismanaged for generations upon generations; the country’s economic and political struggles, oppression and lack of basic human rights have been criticized by world leaders, citizens of the country and human rights groups. The death penalty and torture are used frequently in cases relating to same-sex relations, drugs and adultery, and electric shock is a widely used method of “curing” children who do not identify as straight cisgender individuals.
These protests were a medium for the citizens of Iran to deliver a message to their leaders, demanding that a change be made in the way their country is run. At the end of the day, the power is with the government, the choice is theirs. They are aware of the anger and distress present in their country, the question is: what will they do to lessen it and repair the faults of the current system?