Deutsche Welle quotes one Iranian lawmaker as blaming these problems on “illegal financial institutions” that had been established under the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The closure of one such bank, called Mizan, reportedly had a particularly marked impact on Iran’s second most populous city, Mashhad, which has been the focal point of protests that spanned much of central and northern Iran as of Thursday.
The lawmaker’s account of the protests seemingly absolves the current government of responsibility for the conditions that are being protested by victims of a widening income gap in the Islamic Republic. But the DW article also points out that a major target of those protests has been current President Hassan Rouhani’s slow progress in following through on a promise to reimburse citizens whose investments were wiped out by the collapse of state-linked financial institutions.
At the same time, DW and various other outlets have highlighted a trend toward broader focus in those protests, targeting not just rising prices and not just financial indicators as a whole but also the Rouhani administration’s failure to uphold a wide variety of promises regarding domestic reform. Insofar as the abandonment of these promises represents closure of the political gap between Rouhani’s political allies and those of hardline authorities like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the protests seemingly double as an expression of opposition to the clerical system as a whole.
Indeed, the BBC refers to the demonstrations as “anti-government” protests in its reporting on Friday, as well as identifying them as the most serious and widespread such gatherings since the 2009 Green Movement, which emerged out of protests against Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection. Those protests lasted for eight months and ended with a severe crackdown by government authorities, but many Iran watchers have observed that the resentments voiced by that movement continued to simmer under the surface in anticipation of another mass demonstration.
This is not to say that there have been no major protests in the ensuing year. Indeed, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has identified thousands in the past year alone. But these have tended to be more geographically confined than the current demonstrations, and many have been focused not on politics but on specific demands such as the payment of overdue wages.
The content of Thursday’s and Friday’s protests was evidently broad enough in scope that even some Iranian officials were compelled to acknowledge the “anti-government” nature of chants and slogans, even while downplaying the scope of their appeal. The Associated Press reports that the governor of Tehran, Mohsen Hamedani, had acknowledged the spread of the protests to the Iranian capital, yet insisted that the gathering involved fewer than 50 people, most of whom dispersed after being warned by police.
Hamedani added that those who remained were “temporarily” arrested, and these remarks seemed also to downplay the severity of the government’s response to what might be regarded as a serious threat to its legitimacy. However, social media posts from various cities depicted peaceful protests being met with tear gas and water cannons, and the crowds in each of those gatherings numbered in the hundreds or in the thousands. By the end of Thursday, there had been at least 52 arrests in Mashhad alone, according to the BBC.
Political imprisonment is rampant in the Islamic Republic, and the BBC report also indicates that this was one of the topics that had been advanced by some protestors. But political focus of any given participant in the demonstrations might be different from those of any other, as evidenced by media reports identifying chants as targeting economic issues, political imprisonment, Iran’s paramilitary interventions in the surrounding region, and so on.
This latter topic is closely related to the economic issues that reportedly sparked the protests, since the Iranian government has spent billions of dollars in recent years on propping up the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, as well as on promoting the growth of the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and the various Shiite militias operating in Iraq. A recent editorial in Forbes points out that the new Iranian national budget, introduced by Rouhani in early December, includes the provision of 76 billion dollars to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its foreign special operations Quds Force, at a time when tens of thousands of victims of a November earthquake are still awaiting basic shelter and government services.
But the protest against foreign intervention has taken on a life of its own, with activists chanting such slogans as “forget about Syria; focus on us” and “no Gaza, no Lebanon; I will give my life only for Iran.” Despite the prevalence of these sorts of messages in social media and public accounts of the demonstrations, Iranian officials continue to maintain that the regional military prestige of the Islamic Republic remains broadly popular. For instance, the Huffington Post quotes hardline cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda as claiming that only about 50 protestors had expressed regional concerns within a gathering of several hundred.
Interestingly, the same report also quotes Alamolhoda as advocating for an intensified crackdown on the protestors. In absence of this, he suggested, enemies of the regime would claim that the government had lost its “revolutionary base”. The Huffington Post indicates that Tehran security personnel have promised that any demonstrations in the capital would be “firmly dealt with”. This seems to be at odds with the Tehran governor’s commentary about temporary arrests and also with the initial reaction from Mashhad Governor Mohammad Rahim Norouzian, whom the AP quoted as saying that security forces had shown “great tolerance”.
Since that initial reaction, Iranian officials seem to have increasingly justified crackdowns through acceptance of the broader characterizations of the protests’ grievances and goals. Norouzian himself came to describe the protests as having been organized by “counter-revolutionaries”, according to DW. According to other sources, officials have also referred to the organizers as “hypocrites,” a term often applies to members of the leading Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The PMOI has also been a driving force in a number of activist campaigns within the Islamic Republic, including the push for international attention and independent inquiry into the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners, which primarily targeted that same resistance organization. In a Huffington Post editorial on Friday, former US Ambassador Ken Blackwell sought to connect that massacre, which killed an estimated 30,000 people, to the current protests. He said that Thursday’s and Friday’s chants of “death to the dictator” emerged out of “a political climate punctuated by growing demands for justice for the regime’s massacre.”
But even if the initial economic focus of the latest protests had been voiced in isolation, there is an argument to be made that this also would constitute an expression of opposition to the continued rule of the clerical regime. In fact, this argument was made by historian Ellen Ward on Friday in an editorial published by Forbes. Ward observes that despite some officials’ efforts to blame the previous presidential administration for ongoing problems, it is really the underlying clerical system that is responsible for the economic future of the Iranian people.
This is to say that it is the clerical authorities, and not the elected branches of government, who establish and enforce policies with tremendous economic impact, including the interventionist foreign policy. Ward’s argument is reminiscent of the statement put out on Thursday by the PMOI’s parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran. That statement quoted NCRI President Maryam Rajavi as saying that the economic prospects of the Iranian people cannot be expected to improve until the resistance movement has brought about the emergence of democratic governance in place of the theocratic dictatorship.