Tehran’s Crackdown on Unrest Ignores Its Economic Roots

On Monday, Al Jazeera issued a brief report highlighting some of the harsh economic indicators for the population of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Fully one third of that population is reportedly living under the government-established poverty line of 480 dollars per month. Meanwhile, the median income for the country’s 80 million people is not even twice that figure, meaning that the vast majority of Iranians are essentially incapable of saving for the future.

Most of Iran’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite and particularly among government linked entities. The National Council of Resistance of Iran estimates that well over half of the country’s gross domestic product is controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, either directly or through an array of front companies. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera notes that the gap between the rich and poor appears to be growing, and that this fact was put in the spotlight by the recent mass protests that took place in more than 100 Iranian cities over a period of roughly two weeks beginning on December 28.

Another report was issued last week, which pointed out that the localities which gave rise to protests during that period were overwhelmingly also localities that experienced higher than average unemployment. The government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claims to have reduced the national unemployment rate during his first four-year term in office, but the IW article calls these claims into question, while the outbreak of protests has been widely regarded as a reaction to Rouhani’s failure to deliver on key promises.

Officially, the national unemployment rate is 12 percent, but IW examined this figure in context with the rate of participation in the workforce. Even the Iranian government does not place this latter figure at more than 40 percent. The remaining 60 percent are not factored into unemployment calculations, even though untold numbers of them have found sources of income that do not constitute employment. Others, of course, have simply dropped out of the workforce altogether but would return to actively seeking employment if they believed it was available.

Even putting this aside, IW notes that many Iranians have publicly called into question Rouhani’s claims about having decreased the real levels of unemployment in the country. And even among those who accept that jobs have been created, many suggest that it has had no meaningful impact on the fortunes of average Iranians. These sentiments certainly helped to fuel the recent protests, the first of which took place in Mashhad and were explicitly focused on economic issues including a surge in food prices.

On Monday, Reuters reported that Iran’s currency, the rial, had fallen to record low values compared to the dollar. Naturally, the resulting decreases in spending power add significantly to the hardship of Iranians who are struggling with poverty or unemployment. Reuters also highlighted the fact that the persistence of this situation could further fuel public discontent. Many observers of the recent protests have speculated that more of the same could emerge in the near future, largely because the Iranian regime has not addressed protesters’ demands but has instead suppressed the public demonstrations by arresting thousands of participants along with various activists who may not have even been part of the movement.

Silencing a Broader Message

The general nature of the regime’s crackdown has been justified among Iranian officials by the fact that the protesters’ slogans were ultimately general in nature, as well. Despite the economic roots of the protests, countless participants were heard to chant against the clerical regime as a whole, calling for “death to Rouhani” and “death to the dictator,” in reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Other slogans called attention to the regime’s misplaced economic priorities, as by urging government officials to put aside their support of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and focus their attention on the needs of the Iranian people.

Such activist trends underscore the widely recognized connections between poor economic conditions and the very nature of the Islamic Republic’s government. Furthermore, the crackdown on that activism may reinforce this perception, insofar as it demonstrates the regime’s willingness to make reprisals against the public for their expression of economic discontent but not against instances of government corruption that help to create and maintain that discontent.

Last week, the IHR website referred to the “extreme hypocrisy in the Iranian Judiciary where a thief is sentenced by cutting off his hand, but there are reports about the head of the same Judiciary’s 63 personal bank accounts, filled with public money, which are not even investigated.”

The statement was in reference to an incident on January 17 when authorities at Mashhad Central Prison implemented a sentence of amputation for a convicted thief. Iran Human Rights pointed out that Iran’s Islamic Penal Code lays out four escalating punishments for persons convicted of multiple instances of theft: first the amputation of three fingers on his or her right hand, then the amputation of the left foot, followed by a sentence of up to life in prison, and finally capital punishment.

Iran famously has the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world, as well as persisting in the use of other forms of corporal punishment that are seen by much of the world as highly antiquated and contrary to established human rights principles. When the recent protests were at their peak, judiciary officials warned that the persons deemed to be responsible for the movement could face death sentences on the charge of “enmity against God.”

It is not clear whether the implementation of the amputation sentence has any relation to the relevant prison being located in the city where those protests originated. But the NCRI pointedly indicated that the incident took place during a three-day period when at least five young prisoners were put to death, two of them also in Mashhad.

“The purpose of these executions is to exacerbate the atmosphere of intimidation of young people who have suffered from oppression, poverty and unemployment, and who in recent weeks have shaken the pillars of the clerical regime with their uprising,” the resistance group said in its statement.

International Attention

The NCRI statement also called attention to the case of Abolfazl Chezani, who is “on the verge of execution” after serving four years in prison following his arrest at the age of 15. Iran Human Rights indicated that that sentence was scheduled to be carried out on January 17 but was postponed for unspecified reasons. The execution of juvenile offenders is outlawed by two international conventions to which Iran is a signatory, but the country continues to carry out those sentences, generally several times per year.

Of course, these cases are familiar topics of international activism, and Chezani is no exception. International human rights organizations calls for urgent action on that case immediately before the execution was scheduled to take place, and it is fairly likely that Tehran responded to that pressure. This is no guarantee that the inmate’s life will be spared. The judiciary has delayed other such executions under international pressure in the past, only to carry them out at a later date. But the incident is a potential indicator of the international community’s ability to curtail human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic.

Such indicators are of particular importance in the midst of what is reported to be an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the wake of the recent protests. Iranian activists and Iranian expatriates like those associated with the NCRI are working to provide the world with an increasingly clear picture of the regime’s violent response to those demonstrations. While most international media continues to give the number of deceased protesters as 25 or so, the NCRI insists that at least 50 people have died, while others remain in danger following several thousand arrests.

On Friday, the CHRI reported that the name had just been released of the second person who died sometime after security forces opened fire on the pair on January 2, during protests in Sandanaj. The first individual, Saro Ghahremani, has already become the focus of public questions about the regime’s official narrative of the protests and the government response. After his body was returned to his family showing signs of torture, security forces took his father into custody and forced him to corroborate a story that portrayed Saro as a terrorist.

The mother of the second individual, 24-year-old Kianoosh Zandi, was reportedly told that he had died in a car accident and was warned not to speak to the media. Such warnings are familiar even outside of the context of the recent protests, but within that context they are representative of a wider effort by the regime to discredit the still-emerging accounts of the crackdown.

Defamation and Denial

As another indicator of that effort, CHRI reported that arrested protesters have been told that they would receive earlier release if they asked prison authorities for methadone and claimed to be drug addicts. Some detainees also say they have been forced to take unidentified pills, which caused them to feel sick. IW corroborated these reports and also indicated that the practice has been observed for years and that the portrayal of inmates as drug addicts has been used to preemptively discredit any statements that they make about their treatment.

CHRI pointed to an even more troubling potential motive behind the practice. It noted that the recent deaths of two arrested individuals, Vahid Heydari and Sina Ghanbari, were dubiously described as suicides. After news of those deaths was publicized and helped to raise questions about the government’s narrative of the protests, officials attempted to make their claims more plausible by claiming that both men had been drug addicts.

But this apparent defamation of detainees is only one of the strategies that the regime has employed in its attempt to discredit the underlying protests. High-ranking officials including the supreme leader have also attempted to portray the protests as the product of foreign instigation, and more specifically of a “tripartite alliance” consisting of the US and Israel, plus Saudi-led Arab financiers and Iranian “foot soldiers” affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

On Monday, Tasnim News Agency quoted Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary as reiterating this claim and adding that the US itself had spent “millions of dollars” on fomenting unrest. Such statements may be designed to portray an impoverished Iranian nation as being under siege from wealthy foreign powers, but they deliberately ignore the fact of Iran’s own spending on the hardline institutions responsible for suppression of the protests. Indeed, some observers of those protests have cited as one of its key instigators the release of the latest Iranian national budget, which provided a 24 percent increase, to 7.4 billion dollars, to the Revolutionary Guards while imposing austerity on the already poor and widely unemployed Iranian people.