Friday, the Washington Post published a new analysis of the mass protests that swept the Islamic Republic of Iran beginning three weeks earlier on December 28. After spanning at least 75 and perhaps well over 100 Iranian cities, the demonstrations have been largely suppressed by the government, resulting in thousands of arrests and upwards of 50 deaths. But many observers of the protest movement have publicly stated that it is likely not at an end, but will ultimately be further enflamed by the regime’s response. To this speculation about the future, the Washington Post adds an account of the demonstrations’ roots in the country’s labor movement.
The December 28 protests began in the second most populous Iranian city of Mashhad and focused on the persistent economic hardships facing the Iranian people. These indicators, including double-digit inflation and unemployment, and a jobless rate of approximately 60 percent for the nation’s youth, have not improved in any meaningful way since the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, which led to large-scale relief from Iran’s economic sanctions. The benefits of that relief appear to have been concentrated almost entirely within Iran’s upper classes and specifically with affiliates of regime institutions like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which reportedly controls more than half of Iran’s gross domestic product.
The nuclear agreement gave new context to the trend of growing wealth disparities, but the trend itself was in evidence and well-recognized by the Iranian public for years beforehand. These facts were highlighted by the Washington Post article, which looked at data on Iranian demonstrations between 2012 and 2016, including “protests by female teachers, retired pensioners and unemployed laborers, to name a few examples.”
The data establishes that the labor rights movement has been growing larger every year, while its demonstrations have been growing more intense. The article points out, for instance, that the front door of the parliament building in Tehran was broken in 2016 by the sheer mass of people who had assembled to protest a range of economic issues. It also notes that during the period in question, some manner of labor protest took place in every one of the cities known to have been involved in the week of uprisings that immediately followed the December 28 gathering in Mashhad.
In the days immediately preceding the Washington Post report, the National Council of Resistance of Iran released several reports listing apparent ongoing reactions to the protest movement, including government raids and arrests as well as further public demonstrations. Those documents helped to establish the connection between the recent uprising and the broader labor movement, insofar as they called attention to new labor strikes in Tehran, Mashhad, Bushehr Province, and so on.
But the greater share of the NCRI documents’ emphasis went to accounts of authorities’ crackdowns on social and political activists of every stripe. This reaction calls attention to the fact that the recent uprising, while having roots and branches in the labor movement, also took on much broader messaging as it grew to include diverse groups spanning much of the national population.
Slogans at the demonstrations included calls for the regime to stop wasting money in foreign conflicts and to focus on the problems of the Iranian people. But they also included outright demands for regime change and chants of “death to Rouhani” and “death to the dictator,” in reference to the country’s president and supreme leader, respectively.
NCRI President Maryam Rajavi established the connection between the protests economic demands and their broader political demands in a statement issued shortly after the outbreak of unrest. She declared that the people’s economic hardships were a direct result of the misplaced priorities that are central to the ideology of the clerical regime. According to the statement, those problems could not be meaningfully addressed by any means other than the removal of that regime.
Concerns over this message may serve to explain the evidently indiscriminate nature of the regime’s response to the protests. Even following the suppression of most demonstrations, the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards have been reported as carrying out raids on the homes of human rights advocates and political activists. The families of those individuals have also been threatened, both to put pressure on those already detained and to encourage them to present themselves before authorities.
One NCRI document quoted the Tabriz University student and children’s rights activist Omid Emamgholi as saying, “My mother was summoned to room 37 at Tabriz prison by the Ministry of Intelligence for the second time this month… They know that my mother has a heart problem, but their threats and pressures continue. In the event of any problem for my mother, leaders of the regime, the Ministry of Intelligence and criminal and repressive forces are responsible for it.”
Similar pressure has evidently been exerted on the families of some of those who had already been killed as a result of the protests. On Tuesday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran highlighted the case of 24-year-old Saro Ghahremani, an Iranian Kurd who was evidently killed under torture sometime after his arrest on January 2 at an anti-government protests in Sanandaj. When his body was delivered to his family 11 days later, it showed clear signs of having been beaten, yet regime authorities attempted to claim that he had been killed in an armed confrontation with security forces.
No evidence has been presented to demonstrate Ghahremani’s supposed terrorist affiliations, despite pressure from journalists and a well-known Iranian actress who had known the deceased protester personally. However, upon returning the young man’s body to his family, regime authorities also took his father into detention and released footage hours later showing Mohammad Ghahremani reading a statement corroborating the government’s version of events.
“What you saw in that video is a father’s forced confession against his son,” another relative told CHRI. Forced confessions are commonplace in cases of political imprisonment in the Islamic Republic. But the Ghahremani case is unusual in that a forced confession was apparently elicited not as part of an effort to secure a politically-motivated conviction but solely to manage the public relations aftermath of what appeared to be a politically-motivated killing.
Iran’s Shameful Jurisprudence
In a way, this speaks to another aspect of the Washington Post article and various other analyses of the Iranian government’s response to recent mass protests. Despite the intensity of the ongoing crackdown, the regime has shown a distinct interest in managing the way it is perceived. In the first days of the protests, some officials insisted that they had demonstrated remarkable tolerance for unapproved gatherings, and even after the suppression of those gatherings began, no less a figure that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued public statements defending the rights of the people to air their grievances as long as they did not disturb public order or threaten the regime.
The Washington Post places these statements in the context of an ongoing trend, whereby Iranian authorities have used “localized bargaining” to managed protests instead of reflexively crushing them. However, the article goes on to indicate that this is not the result of a more compassionate outlook on dissent, as some regime officials claim, but is instead a necessary compromise with the “sheer scale of nonviolent protest across Iran,” which present “a serious challenge to overt strategies of systematic use of violence by government forces.”
There are a number of other areas in which the regime’s impulse to appear less violent and thus engender less public backlash are contradicted by its actual, ongoing behaviors. For instance, the Iranian parliament recently approved legal changes with regard to drug offenses, which could lead to the revocation of as many as 4,000 death sentences for non-violent criminals. But there is considerable skepticism about whether the changes will be actively adopted, as opposed to being highlighted as a sign of superficial progress and then ignored in practice.
There are various reasons for this skepticism, including previous instances of hardline resistance to similar measures and reports that the judiciary actually moved to accelerate the implementation of death penalties for drug offenders who were also members of the Sunni religious minority in the immediate aftermath of the legal changes.
Speaking more generally, Iran’s approach to jurisprudence does not appear to have changed in a way that would cohere with new rules on minor drug offenses. The regime continues to defend the practice of carrying out death sentences for persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes, despite the fact that such killings are plainly outlawed by international conventions to which Iran is a signatory. It also continues to use other forms of punishment that have been almost universally rejected by the international community.
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a thief had had his hand amputated in a prison in Mashhad. The reported notes that such punishments are based on the judiciary’s “strict interpretation of Islamic law” and that domestic critics see the nation’s image as being harmed by such amputations, as well as by public executions, floggings, and so on.
Contrary to domestic pressure in favor of reform, and contrary to the regime’s own efforts to downplay its response to the recent protests, the judiciary has publicly warned that those who are deemed responsible for the uprising could face death sentences. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has called attention to the torture and abuse that detainees will likely confront as they await their fate. And the NCRI specifies that more than 8,000 people have apparently been subjected to that danger as a result of the protests.
The Role of Western Powers
On Tuesday, the Washington Times further highlighted the NCRI’s activism on this issue, including its accusation that Western powers have been largely silent in the face of recognizable abuses, including several instances of protesters being tortured to death. The same article also quoted Jim Phillips, a Middle East analyst from the Heritage Foundation, as blaming this silence on European leaders’ desire to preserve the 2015 nuclear agreement and its attendant promises of expanded trade with Iran – the same trade that has apparently benefited regime-linked institutions at the expense of the Iranian public.
“One of the benefits of the EU re-engagement with Iran is that UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is able to travel to Tehran to raise the issue of the UK-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff, under arrest since 2016,” the article specified. But this view is called into question by a report from the Center for Human Rights in Iran that described Tehran prosecutor Gholam-Hossein Esmaili’s efforts to undercut perceived progress toward the resolution of the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case.
“Nazanin Zaghari is serving her prison sentence and there’s no discussion about freeing her,” Esmaili said two days after former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed optimism about the effects of his own recent meeting with Iranian officials.
It is not clear that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation is any better than that of imprisoned American-Iranian dual nationals like 81-year-old Baquer Namazi, who was recently transferred to hospital for the fourth time in 12 months as a result of heart problems, according to reports.
Furthermore, it is not clear that any of these cases have much bearing on the broader human rights concerns in the Islamic Republic.
On the other hand, European engagement with Tehran in the face of these issues arguably threatens to exacerbate the economic disparities that contributed to the latest uprising and, by extension, to the latest crackdown.