Analysis: Latest Iran protests likely not last for Tehran – Region – World


Iran protests

Iranian pro-government protesters hold placards of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country’s flags during their rally condemning recent anti-government protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by the nation’s morality police , in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, September 25, 2022. AP

But these flashes show that public anger across the country that was once simmering is now simmering.

The demonstrations surrounding the death of Mahsa Amini and the government’s crackdown on smothering them represent just the latest cycle of unrest to sweep Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It likely won’t be the last as the Islamic Republic reels between crises at home and abroad. The window through which the whole world can only see them darkens as authorities restrict Internet access, arrest journalists, and tightly control every lever of government power.

Protests over Amini’s death have spread to at least 46 Iranian towns and villages. State television has indicated that at least 41 protesters and police officers have been killed since the protests began on September 17.

An Associated Press tally of official statements by authorities put the death toll at at least 13, with more than 1,200 protesters arrested.

But the tightening of the crackdown comes as no surprise given Iran’s modern history.

Ever since the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran in 1979, the Iranian theocracy has seen itself threatened.

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Bombings in 1981 blamed on dissidents killed dozens of senior officials. One even paralyzed the right arm of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein waged a bloody eight-year war against Iran that killed 1 million people.

In Tehran, hostility towards the United States began with the US-backed coup of 1953 that cemented the Shah’s rule. For Washington, the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis fueled hostility towards Iran.

And the mutual distrust continues to this day. After the failure in 2015 of a deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran has amassed enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb if it so desires.

The Iranian government has dismissed the recent protests as a foreign conspiracy rather than an expression of public outrage at the death of a woman who was jailed simply because the vice squad did not like her mandatory headscarf or hijab.

Pro-government demonstrations in Tehran and other cities followed the official line, with some protesters chanting, “American mercenaries are fighting religion.”

The government’s decision to restrict Instagram, LinkedIn and WhatsApp, three of the last Western social media apps functioning in the country, has limited the ability for protesters to organize and share their videos with the outside world.

Instead, only brief clips make their way out, including those of security guards shooting at protesters and women defiantly cutting their hair and burning their hijabs.

Security forces, including Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard volunteers riding motorcycles, have attacked peaceful protesters.

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There is also footage of apparent protesters setting fires, overturning police cars and fighting off riot police.

These scenes are similar to those that happened in 2019 after the government scrapped fuel subsidies, prompting protesters to burn gas stations and loot banks.

Rights groups say the unrest in more than 100 towns and cities and subsequent government crackdowns have killed over 300 people and led to thousands of arrests.

Due to internet restrictions, it remains unclear whether recent protests have eclipsed those of 2019. Exiled opposition groups and Iranian hardliners have both used the short clips online to paint their own pictures of the unrest, while the government remains largely silent.

Independent observers and human rights activists are threatened, intimidated and arrested in Iran. Government text messages to the public warn of criminal charges for taking part in demonstrations.

At least 18 reporters have been arrested so far, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Like other riots since 2009, when millions took to the streets as part of the so-called Green Movement against a disputed presidential election, the recent demonstrations appear spontaneous and leaderless.

Even if a government crackdown eventually crushes the protests, it’s unlikely to eradicate deep-seated anger.

Iran’s economy has collapsed and Western sanctions have wiped out a generation’s savings. The value of the currency has fallen sharply, from 32,000 riyals to the dollar in 2015 to 315,000 riyals to the dollar in 2022.

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Iranian youth are increasingly trying to find a new livelihood abroad at any cost. Those left behind struggle to make ends meet.

Iranian politics has become closed and uncompromising. In the 2021 presidential election, all serious contenders were disqualified to give Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Khamenei, the presidency with the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic.

The economic challenges and uncompromising political positions are only likely to become entrenched. Even if Iran agrees to a roadmap to restore the nuclear deal, it will likely face new US sanctions for selling so-called suicide drones to Russia for use in its ongoing war in Ukraine.

A struggle for leadership could turn Iran’s focus further inward. There is no designated successor for 83-year-old Khamenei, although some analysts suggest his son Mojtaba Khamenei could be seen by clerics as the next supreme leader.

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to the supreme leader, has grown increasingly powerful both militarily and economically during recent tensions with the West.

The US Treasury Department said the guard smuggled “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of sanctioned oil into the international market.

Both the theocracy and the Guard have a financial and political incentive to continue the status quo. And without other outlets, mass protests by the Iranian public seem likely to continue.

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