A new wave of street protests is sweeping the country, triggered by a hike in prices. The country’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Raisi are among protesters’ targets. Actors, athletes and intellectuals back the movement, urging the authorities to heed protesters’ demands, not crack down on them. Against this backdrop, a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is still pending.
Milan (AsiaNews) – As prices rise and subsidies are cut, Iran’s economic crisis deepens, sparking a new wave of protests across Iran. As a result, the security forces have met the growing tensions with a violent response.
For some observers, the country has become a powder keg ready to explode, whilst others believe that the government, with the support of the clergy, will be able to weather the storm.
Order will be restored this time as well, but the use of force risks another bloodbath, like in the fall of 2019.
For some Iranian analysts and scholars, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, a fire is smouldering “under the ashes” in Iranian society because of harsh US economic sanctions, as well as poor management by those in power.
Increasingly, ordinary Iranians are no longer willing to accept hardships in order to support official propaganda and radical ideology.
This is also one of the reasons why there is less and less support for the economic policies of right-wing President Ebrahim Raisi, favouring elites and their institutions, leaving most out in the cold.
The bill for his policies will have to be paid sooner or later against what some describe as an “explosive” political, economic and social background.
“All the revolutions in the world have occurred in a context when no one listened to the people,” warns a scholar cited by Middle East Eye.
Protests and crackdown
Five people were reportedly killed recently during protests in a number of provinces, with riot police deployed to protect sensitive sites, this according to unofficial sources cited on social media.
In view of the situation, the authorities have blocked the internet in a number of cities and districts affected by demonstrations, like Khuzestan province, where tensions are running high.
For two weeks, thousands of people have taken part in protests in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari provinces as well, plus the cities of Boroujerd in Lorestan province and Dehdasht in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province.
Some rallies were reported in a number of cities in the central province of Esfahan and the eastern province of Khorasan Razavi. But the focal points of clashes and protests have been in the cities of Izeh, Dezful and Andimeshk, Khuzestan province.
The protests were triggered by President Raisi's decision to cut subsidies for a variety of flour-based staples. This has led to a 300 per cent price hike that threatens to bring Iran’s 85 million people to their knees, this in a country where half of the population already lives below the poverty line.
The authorities blame rising prices on the war in Ukraine and the global crisis in supplies; however, more and more people are turning against the country’s rulers, including its clergy and ayatollahs, deemed corrupt and incompetent.
In the big cities, residents are still able to find ways to survive but in towns and rural areas, this is harder to do. In the past, rural voters brought to power former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now all they can do is protest.
Grassroots anger has gradually increased and morphed along with the sounds of shouts and chanting. Whilst the first slogans called for “death to high prices”, they quickly became “death to Raisi” and even “death in Khamenei”, a clear sign that Iranian society might be on the verge of blowing up against the theocratic regime.
More and more people believe that Khamenei, Raisi and their inner circle are the reason for widespread poverty, not to mention abuses and plunder by an elite that operates with impunity.
On top of this, the ideological choices and related propaganda, such as nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme, have divert money and resources that could have been used to improve infrastructure, services and investments.
In Jooneghan, a city in southwestern Iran, protesters attacked the local base of the paramilitary Basij force, which is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also known as the Pâsdârân (Guardians), an auxiliary force tasked with protecting the interests of the regime and its leaders through violence, ready to crack down on protests or target dissidents, like during the tumultuous weeks in the fall of 2019.
Actors and sport celebrities standing with the people
Celebrities from the world of sports and movies, as well as intellectuals have added their voices to the protest movement, openly siding with demonstrators via social media, criticising the government for the way it was handling the crisis.
Actor Ali Nasirian noted that celebrating was impossible when people were going hungry. His colleague Parviz Parastoui posted an open letter on social media to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, later deleted, stressing that, “It is not right that our people face shooting and tear gas in the streets” when they are desperate to be heard because they “do not have money” and “cannot afford [to purchase] chicken, pasta, and cooking oil”.
At a press conference in Cannes, where the annual film festival is underway, Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi said he could not be happy when "many Iranians" are suffering. Fellow director Shahab Hosseini lamented that “as poverty enters people’s homes, faith leaves”, as do trust in authority and hope for the future.
Some of the harshest words came from footballer Voria Ghafouri, captain of the popular Esteghlal team. “When it comes to social and civil issues, football is no longer my priority, and I must take advantage of my position and be the voice of [people],” he explained.
“Aren't the authorities ashamed of this situation? I hope our people live the life they deserve. Our life is short, and it is the right of the Iranian people to live happily," he said after a match on 14 May.
Iranian state television responded by banning interviews with the footballer and censoring his pictures. But his attacks encouraged other athletes, like colleague Ali Daei who spoke out in support of Ghafouri's position, slamming hardliners for “silencing the critics”.
“People are experiencing the worst economic situation, so instead of a crackdown, you should fundamentally think about solving their problems,” Daei said.
Against this backdrop of domestic social unrest, Iran’s nuclear programme remains a major issue. Talks in Vienna have been stalled for weeks and a new international agreement, essential to lift sanctions on Iranian oil and replenish the country's coffers, appears more and more remote.
In the United States, government sources note that a compromise with Iran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is still a long way off despite optimism generated by the visit to Tehran of the European Union’s coordinator for nuclear talks.
“Iran needs to decide whether it insists on extraneous conditions and whether it wants to conclude a deal quickly, which we believe would serve all sides’ interests,” said a US State Department spokesperson
For its part, Israel wants an agreement, even a bad one, which is better than nothing, in order to maintain a minimum balance and level of security in the region.