Large protests against unemployment, poverty, corruption and the political elite that have swept Iran face a brutal crackdown by government forces.
Thousands of people have protested in towns and cities across Iran, in the largest wave of unrest since 2009. At least 15 people were confirmed to have been killed by Monday—the fifth day of protests—as demonstrators clashed with police.
Protests began on Thursday of last week in the city of Mashhad after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced a draft budget that promised austerity and price rises.
But the demonstrations quickly spread to other cities and became more radical. Slogans have included, “Death to Rouhani,” and, “With less corruption our problems will be solved”.
This comes after years of a deepening economic crisis that has fuelled price rises, low wages and high unemployment.
The “reformist” Rouhani was elected in 2013 with plans to open up Iran’s economy to big business and foreign investment. Iran’s reformists promised that wealth would trickle down to the poor, creating jobs and boosting wages.
But Rouhani’s government has pursued austerity. Strikes have become more common since his election.
An Iranian activist living in Britain, said, “The economic crisis has deepened.
“We can see this in the huge debts of the government to banks, the depletion of pension funds, the bankruptcy of financial institutions and unbelievable amounts of corruption and embezzlement.
“During the last three or four years we’ve had major strikes and pickets by workers in Arak and oil and gas rich areas in the south.”
The initial protest was reported to have been organised by “hardliners” from Iran’s political establishment opposed to the reformists’ changes.
Yet neither the hardliners nor the reformists that make up Iran’s political establishment can satisfy the demands of ordinary people.
The last wave of major demonstrations in 2009—the so-called “Green Movement”—saw mass protests against “hardliner” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.
That movement was crushed in a violent crackdown, but the hardliners were defeated in the 2013 elections.
Speaking on Sunday Rouhani said protesters should have “space to criticise” the government, but also warned of a crackdown against “violent” demonstrations.
Police had already attacked protests as Rounani spoke. In some towns protesters reportedly occupied police stations in retaliation.
The activist said, “Wherever the regime has used an iron fist the people have punished it severely. What we see is amazing bravery and tremendous anger, and huge desire for freedom and social justice.”
The protests in Iran are messy and contradictory. Some of the chants have been right wing, or hostile towards Arabs.
And forces such as the US and Israel, responsible for immense suffering across the Middle East, have opportunistically backed the demonstrations.
Iran is locked in a competition with US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia for control of the Middle East. It has intervened in wars in Iraq and Syria to extend its influence in the region.
That competition has threatened to spill over into yet another bloody conflict in recent months.
Protesters in Iran are angry that the government has spent money on wars while they suffer poverty and unemployment.
Some protesters have chanted slogans such as, “Forget about Syria—think about us”.
Others have chanted more nationalist slogans such as, “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I give my life for Iran”. Other slogans such as, “We are Aryans, we don’t worship Arabs,” show that some protesters are open to racist ideas.
US president Donald Trump tweeted, “The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism.
“Looks like they will not take it any longer.”
Meanwhile Israeli media has presented the protests as a complete rejection of Iran’s stance against the West.
In response, Iranian officials have warned that Saudi Arabia is behind the protests.
Trump and his allies are hypocrites. Years of US-led sanctions against Iran, recently reinvigorated by Trump, cause hardship for ordinary people.
Trump has repeatedly talked of conflict with Iran that would be devastating. And wars waged by Saudi Arabia and Israel have torn the region apart.
The protests from below clearly have a life of their own.
They could grow into a movement beyond the control of any regional power—and shake the rulers across the Middle East.
But workers will have to guard their independence from imperialist attempts to hijack them.
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