Over the last 70 years, Iran has seen Prime Minister Ali Razmara assassinated, the overthrowing of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the exiling of its Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fought in an 8-year war with Iraq, been declared an ‘axis of evil,’ had countless allegations of voting fraud and a myriad of protests and leadership rifts in between. It is a country whose political history is so volatile and uncertain, that they may want to learn Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ slogan!
It is therefore not a surprise that Iran welcomed the new year with the continuation of the protests that had started on December 28th. Since then, about 21 people have reportedly died, sparking outrage amongst the international community at the brazen violence towards otherwise peaceful protesters. Shankar Vedanta – a researcher on the ‘Psychology of Protest’ – claims that the best way for protesters to be successful in their goals is to garner a lot of public and media attention. Social media apps - particularly Telegram, which is used by half of Iranians – played a vital role in the recent protests. The point of social media is to remove elitism; regardless of race, sex or class, everyone can join and voice their own opinion. Due to this openness, and the fact that social media reaches audiences across the globe, it becomes a lot easier for individuals to feel like someone is acknowledging and responding to what they have to say. It also increases the chances of becoming a viral sensation, though if you’re walking through a Japanese forest it may not always be a good thing!
But, in relation to the recent Iranian protests, it provided a direct channel to speak to those in power. President Donald Trump responded to the protesters by tweeting his admiration at the Iranian people. Whilst his tweet may have been hypocritical – considering his travel ban prevents Iranians from even entering the US – it did create more traction for the protests. With the first protests in Mashhad going viral, and with consequent protests spreading to more than 70 towns and cities, the government proceeded to block the only uncensored foreign media platforms – Telegram and Instagram.
The protests initially arose due to anger and frustration against price rises and corruption. It was expected that with crippling economic sanctions being lifted in 2015 between the 5 permanent UN Security Council members – and Germany – over Iran’s nuclear programme, that the country would experience larger economic growth. However, with a high unemployment rate, and most of the benefits of economic growth not trickling down to the young working class or rural workers, people are understandably annoyed. This coupled with the price of staple foods such as eggs have risen by more than 40% recently, and the fact that more than 35% of Iranians are under the poverty line, the protests highlight the desperation and discontent most Iranians are facing in their daily lives. Many of the protests have therefore been taking place in smaller, poorer and more rural areas – importantly this distinguishes these protests from the past, which were constrained to the capital and large urban cities.
It is a movement without a national leader, but nonetheless a movement for change, with one protester from the Kermanshah area even chanting “when we don’t have bread to eat, we are not afraid of anything!”
Much of the criticisms President Rouhani faces stems from his intervention in international conflicts within Syria and Lebanon. Instead of focusing its attention, money and resources towards foreign disputes, protesters want the country to focus on its domestic priorities. Given that these are the largest protests to erupt since the 2009 presidential election, it represents a significant moment for President Hassan Rouhani when looking at the fatigue and frustrations faced by the Iranian people. American-Iranian economist Karim Sandpaper recently tweeted “in 1979, Iranians experienced a revolution without democracy; today they aspire for democracy without a revolution.” It is unlikely that Iran will follow in the footsteps of Egypt or others in the Middle east following the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but democracy isn’t as simple as a solution as one would believe. Whilst it is easy to criticise the regime – as much of the west does – it is a lot harder to implement democracy well. Even in the west we struggle with maintaining the foundations of democracy, but because we aren’t struggling as much as other countries we naively believe that our system is correct!
Yet, even if these protests do temporarily fade within the next few months, the contentment/resentment many Iranians have will continue to re-emerge in the future. The country has more issues than Mike Pence alone in a room full of woman - or Harvey Weinstein for that matter! Truth is, unless President Rouhani actually listens to the uproar and strives to make changes - which with the power and grip of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards is unlikely - Iran will struggle to see an escape to this cycle of political grievances.
The west criticise their regime, but where were they in the lead up to this and what are they doing to make a difference now? Nimisha Mistry, PAIS, Second Year
The coverage of the situation is so mixed. Independent journalists on Twitter and large news companies are posting a barrage of separate accounts on the current situation, and I think the world should know what’s clearly going on. Catherine Yo, PPE, Third Year