On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a report on Iran’s national response to the death last weekend of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The announcement of his death coincided with the clerical regime declaring three days of nationwide mourning for the mullah who had played a major role in the founding of the Islamic Republic. Many Western reports of Rafsanjani’s death emphasized his supposed distance from that regime in his later years, particularly following his support for some of the grievances voiced by the Green Movement in 2009.
However, the Wall Street Journal indicated that the regime’s recognition of his death focused solely on his loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader, while ignoring his supposed late-in-life concerns about its functioning. By contrast, the harshest critics of the regime did not take Rafsanjani seriously when he expressed those concerns, feeling that partial support for the Green Movement was insufficient to make up for a history of political violence, underscored by statements Rafsanjani had made in the 1980s calling for the killing of members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and other opponents of the fledgling theocracy.
No doubt these critics were among those who used Rafsanjani’s funeral on Tuesday as an opportunity to protest against the repressive activities of the Iranian regime, including its persistent detention of political prisoners, in some cases without trial or charge. This situation led the Wall Street Journal to describe “two parallel funerals” taking place in Tehran – one led by the regime’s leadership and one led by activists. The latter phenomenon also prompted more repressive actions by the regime, although in this case it did not risk tarnishing the government-led event by attacking the protestors directly.
Instead, state media broadcasts of the funeral were muted in order to silence chants calling for the release of the Green Movement leaders and for other concessions from the regime. At the same time, Iranian citizens reported that internet speeds had been slowed and websites had been more heavily restricted as part of an effort to prevent information about the protests from spreading.
But Rafsanjani’s funeral was only one rallying point for recent protests either against the regime itself or against specific repressive measures and policies. Such protests demonstrate remarkable defiance in the face of an ongoing crackdown on dissent, pro-Western attitudes, and artistic expression. Human rights groups and various media outlets have reported on a wide range of arrests since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers. These arrests are widely regarded as part of a hardline effort to forestall expectations of progressive change within the Islamic Republic or expanded cooperation with Western powers.
Numerous dual nationals have been arrested during that time, including the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose two-year-old daughter had her passport confiscated at the same time, thus preventing her from being able to return home to her father. Robin Shahini, a San Diego man similarly arrested while visiting family in Iran, was sentenced in October to a staggering 18 years in prison on charges of “collaboration with a hostile government.” As in other such cases, the nature of this supposed collaboration was never made clear, and Shahini’s accusers presented innocuous aspects of his past history against him, including an image of him in a school uniform that was misidentified as an American military uniform.
Meanwhile, the ranks of Iran’s purely domestic political prisoners have also grown, and for equally absurd reasons. Also in October, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was arrested and ordered to begin a six year prison sentence based on the contents of an unpublished short story found in a notebook in her home. The arrest prompted a 71-day hunger strike by her husband, Arash Sadeghi, who was already serving a 15-year sentence for his peaceful activism. That hunger strike ended last week, but only after protests outside of Evin Prison, supported by a nationwide social media campaign, prompted the Iranian regime to concede to Sadeghi’s demand that his wife be release and her case reviewed.
Some media described the protests as a rare unauthorized public demonstration in a country where the arrest of activists is commonplace and sometimes leads to torture or indefinite solitary confinement. But the bold protests at the Rafsanjani funeral highlight the idea that such public activism is not as rare as one might expect, especially during a period of intensified law enforcement activity.
And it is not only political imprisonment and the repression of dissent that is prompting such protests. The Los Angeles Times pointed to another cause that is prompting some Iranians to organize in defiance of the government’s efforts at repression. The article profiled street vendors who have gravitated toward informal bazaar markets as an alternative source of income as a result of unemployment or poverty-level government wages. Many of those markets have been demolished by the government, only to be quickly rebuilt, at the risk of further reprisal. And the participants in those markets have repeatedly protested these efforts to deprive them of a livelihood, sometimes resorting to such extreme measures as public suicide or self-immolation.
The LA Times article quoted one protestor as contrasting ordinary citizens’ difficult economic prospects with those of a highly corrupt government leadership. “We are not well-connected top managers who can embezzle funds, take zero-interest loans and make a fortune,” he said. Despite being described as moderate in some Western media, the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been mired in a number of recent scandals regarding favor-trading and excessive compensation for high-level government employees, thus undermining his promises of economic reform.
Those scandals have reportedly been used against Rouhani by his political adversaries in advance of his bid for reelection this year. Many analysts claim that his prospects for reelection, already diminished by these efforts, have been further diminished by the loss of Rafsanjani, his most highly-placed political ally. Rouhani’s leading opponents are prominent hardliners, but the recent surge in anti-government protests suggests that his administration enjoys little real support among moderates and reformists.