A wave of protest swept through Iran in the second half of November, sparked by the government’s sudden decision to raise fuel prices. Although the picture of the events is still blurred, many witness accounts and even some official statements indicate that it was the largest and most intense protest seen in Iran in the last 40 years – that is, since the Islamic Revolution.
It was also the deadliest, as it was met with brutal repression by the security forces. In one instance the Revolutionary Guard went to the point of firing on protesters with machine guns. Overall account are disputed: Amnesty International’s most recent assessment says that Iranian security forces killed more than 200 protesters. Officials dismiss that estimate as “lies” but offered no number for the victims. Yet an implicit acknowledgment of the violent crackdown came from Supreme Leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when on December 4th he decreed that “normal citizen who did not have any role in the riots and lost their lives will be considered martyrs” (the designation is both symbolic and tangible, as it allows families to claim compensation).
The scale of the unrest clearly took many by surprise. Such an explosion of deep public anger raises many questions about the extent of the social and economic malaise in Iran and its political consequences. But first, let’s summarize what happened, or at least what we know so far.
An explosion of rage
The protests began on Friday, November 15th, as the news of a 50 percent gasoline increase became public. Protests erupted that day in peripheral cities like Sirjan, in the Kerman province in central Iran, and Ahwaz in the southwestern oil province of Khuzestan, as well as in Mashhad in the north-east. The following day, Saturday 16th, protests had expanded to cities large and small, from north to south, from the coastal towns on the Persian Gulf to the intensely populated north-west of Iran, including the capital Tehran. Protests continued through November 17th and 18th, and sporadically in the following days as security forces took control.
Crowds chanted “gas is more expensive, the poor became poorer”, according to witnesses. Or “the oil money, spent on Palestine”. Or “Death to the dictator”, a reference to the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Similar slogans have been heard in Iran before, in particular during the protests erupted in early January 2017 sparked by high food prices.
The interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli later said that over 50 military bases had been targeted and that 731 banks, 140 government sites, 70 gas stations, nine religious centres, 307 private and 183 military vehicles and 1076 private motorbikes had been vandalized or torched. Talking to the state Tv Irib, he estimated that between 130.000 and 200.000 people took part in the protests nationwide.
In this time-period, no one knew for sure what was happening across the country, because in the late afternoon of Saturday 16th the Iranian government ordered the Internet to be shut down blocking access to social media and messenger services. The blackout continued for about 10 days, although it did not prevent at least some news, photos, and videos from reaching foreign media.
Many such photos showed people attacking gasoline stations and public buildings, or blocking highways, and clashing with security forces. In them, were scenes of devastation, bank branches ransacked, traffic lights stolen. Witness accounts gathered both by Iran Wire‘s correspondents and by the New York Times said that security forces opened fire on the protesters. In one case, in a Shiraz suburb, witnesses said that protesters didn’t cause any damage but it was the paramilitary forces to set fire to a bank branch, just to blame “rioters”.
Perhaps the most shocking case of violent repression is that of Mahshahr, a town of 120.000 inhabitants in southwestern Khuzestan Province. Here protesters had taken control of many suburbs and a major highway, gateway to the important port of Bandar Imam; for three days the police were not able to disperse the crowd. Then the Revolutionary Guards intervened: they approached the main roadblock and opened fire killing many, apparently without any warning. Later encircled the remaining protesters in a nearby marsh and fired with machine guns. The deaths could be as many as one hundred, said witnesses including residents, doctors, and paramedics who attended to many of the wounded. Bodies were returned to the families on the condition they should not hold public mourning ceremonies.
The suburb where these dramatic events took place, Shahrak Chamran, has a large Arab minority population. Some witnesses said that at least one protester fired back on the Guards with an AK47: a detail that will corroborate the official narrative that “terrorists” had infiltrated the protests. In fact, on December 2nd Iran’s state television confirmed that security forces had shot and killed protesters hidden in the marshes in Mahshahr; the local police commander described them as “armed terrorists” and praised the tactics of security forces for crushing the unrest.
Who was in the streets?
According to most accounts, protesters were mostly young men in their 20s, sometimes younger. Many of them are unemployed, although often well educated. Most protests occurred in low-income and working-class urban areas. “The majority of protesters were from extremely poor suburbs of Mahshahr”, said a witness quoted by Iran Wire: “they were protesting against poverty, inequality, and unemployment. And they still are”.
This should be alarming to the Iranian establishment, for it is not a conflict within the known political factions (as was the “green wave” in 2009 after the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad): paradoxically, today’s protesters are the lower middle classes considered the pillars of the consensus of the Islamic Republic. There was no sign of any organized movement though: rather spontaneous, loud manifestations of discontent.
Researchers observed that about 20 percent of all Iranian counties (89 counties out of 429) saw at least one day of protests. These are the most urbanized and developed parts of Iran in terms of education, health care, infrastructure etc., as a group of researchers at Boston College highlight in a recent article on Foreign Affairs. In fact, revolutionary Iran invested considerably in development and particularly in education for all: by doing so it helped to create new generations of “empowered citizens”. Now, these empowered citizens are in the streets, but the gas price was just the spark: to explain the intensity of the recent explosion one has to look to the frustrated expectations of so many young educated Iranians, and to the general sense of uncertainty in a country in a deep economic crisis besieged by sanctions in a region in turmoil.
A country dismayed
The brutality of the crackdown left a country dismayed. Accusations are been raised. “To what point do you intend to use violence to deprive people of their most basic rights and essential needs?”, asked an open letter signed by many leading artists. Reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2011, compared the current events to the massacre of demonstrators perpetrated by the Shah’s regime in 1978. “The killers of the year 1978 were the representatives of a non-religious regime, and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government,” said the former presidential candidate of 2009 in a statement issued on November 30th on the Reformist Kaleme website. In unprecedently harsh words directed at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei he added: “Then the commander in chief was the Shah. Today it is the supreme leader with absolute authority”.
Other voices made comparisons with the old regime. About a week after the events in Mahshahr, a member of parliament representing that town, Mohammad Golmoradi, is said to have expressed his outrage in the Majlis, the Parliament, shouting “What have you done that the bastard Shah didn’t do?”, before being calmed down by other colleagues.
Bitter questions are being raised in the Majlis. On December 2nd a member of the Reformist parliamentary block, Ms. Parvaneh Salahshouri, asked that a special committee be created to investigate the November protests and “to find out the truth about what happened” and respond to the anguish of the people. Salhashouri also referred to “groups of people who were embedded with demonstrators” just to destroy property during recent anti-government protests: her remark is the first time a public official indirectly accused security and intelligence organs.
Interestingly, all the parliamentary blocs asked for a special inquiry committee, although for different reasons: the hardliners are accusing the government over the decision to raise fuel prices, clearly trying to take advantage of the protests; the reformists are accusing the heavy hand of security forces. In fact, reformist MPs want to impeach Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, while hardliners have already collected signatures to ask the removal of influential Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh.
Why the fuel price hike?
The blame game about the announcement that sparked the protests has started. In fact, the 50 percent rise in gas prices – or rather the reduction of government subsidies on gasoline and petrol products – was expected, although the timing puzzled many. The policy of gradually removing subsidies started in 2010 (under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and was to be implemented in phases: this was the third phase. Since the beginning it has been accompanied by a rationing system; each passenger vehicle has a magnetic card with an allocation of 60 liters per month at a fixed price (more for commercial vehicles and taxis), which after the hike is now 15.000 rials per liter, about 9 US dollar cents. Over that amount, the market price is now 30.000 rials.
This makes gasoline in Iran still very cheap compared to the regional benchmarks: and this is why there is a huge amount of fuel smuggling from Iran. Although different figures circulate, the average estimate is 20 million liters of gas and diesel smuggled per day: for the State, this makes an annual loss of about 1,3 billion US$ (smuggling revenue usually return to Iran in the form of imported goods, with an additional loss for the state coffers in non-paid import taxes).
Government sources stated that reducing subsidies at this time would allow the State to save 300 trillion rials (2,6 billion US$ at market rate), which would be used to increase the direct cash subsidies to citizens that are already in place: about 60 million citizens, 73 percent of the population, will receive a higher monthly subsidy based on the size of the family.
Meanwhile, on Sunday December 8th president Rohani presented his budget law to the Majlis for discussion: a budget for a “resistance economy” to face sanctions, he said (the budget must be approved before March 20th, the end of the Persian year). An austerity budget, but softened by announced pay rises for public workers and allocations for cash subsidies.
“People’s hearts are full of spite”
The official view of the mid-November unrest is that it was the work of insurgents, counter-revolutionaries, in fact a “conspiracy” against the Islamic Republic and that security forces successfully intervened to quickly regain control. “The enemies had spent a great amount of money designing this conspiracy (…) the Iranian nation quashed the enemy’s movement with its magnificent display”, said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 27th.
Later though, the tones softened. In a televised speech on December 3rd president Hassan Rohani asked that “those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed (…) should be released” and ordered a panel to investigate facts and possible compensation for civilians. As noted earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei himself differentiated between the legitimate protests and the “instigators”.
According to official news over 7,000 people were arrested during and after the protests. The arrests continued after the protests; on December 2nd the Intelligence ministry announced that 29 individuals considered the “primary agents of the attacks” had been arrested in Khuzestan, and firearms seized.
Of course, it is impossible to rule out foreign involvement; very likely organizations such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization and supporters of the Pahlavi monarchy may be attempting to exploit popular protests – although it is well known that these groups do not carry much influence in Iran.
At their core, however, the protests are first of all an expression of genuine anger and dissatisfaction of Iranians with the current state of affairs in the country – just as in neighbouring Iraq or in Lebanon. As the reformist member of Parliament, Ms. Salahshour, said in the Majlis, “People’s hearts are full of spite”, and “ignoring the people is very dangerous; decision-makers should know what consequences that has”.
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