A year and eleven months ago, Iran’s parliamentary elections ended in a resounding victory for the reformists. Last May, the reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani convincingly defeated his hardline rival, Ebrahim Raisi, in the Presidential election. Rouhani’s inauguration was presented as a celebration of the country’s democracy and stability.
But last Thursday demonstrations began at the city of Mashhad and then rapidly spread across the country, growing in clamour and violence with, so far, 21 dead and 450 injured. Earlier this week, the Grand Ayatollah, Ali Khameini, who had sought to stay above it all, intervened to accuse foreign powers of sabotage. He did not name the enemy states, but other senior officials blamed the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia for instigating the protests which have led to bloodshed and destruction.
Yesterday there were massive pro-government counter-demonstrations taking place. It remains to be seen whether these, and threats of severe punitive action by the Revolutionary Guards against further violence, result in the protests dissipating. But a lot of confusion remains about what exactly has unfolded in the last seven days, the reasons behind it, and the reaction of the divided Iranian hierarchy.
One factor behind the marches and rallies are that people are now increasingly willing to speak out and be critrical. Covering the Parliamentary and Presidential elections and the inaugurations in Iran, I was struck on successive visits by how people seemed more confident about speaking to foreign journalists. Those who had voted for reform felt empowered by the results, but it was not confined just to them. Even in Qom, a centre of Shia theocracy, clerics – as well as members of the public – were increasingly prepared to engage in discussion and debate.
President Rouhani and his colleagues encouraged this development: the feeling was that allowing greater freedom would be helpful to the reform programme in confronting the conservative backlash, clerical and political, which was bound to follow.
In his first speech following victory, President Rouhani made the deliberate and controversial gesture of praising former President Mohammed Khatami, ignoring a ban on publicly mentioning the leader whose own attempts at reform were thwarted by the reactionary clergy. Mr Rouhani also lauded students, academics and activists for championing the democratic process: precisely the people who had been targeted by previous Islamic regimes.
There was hardly a warm welcome from the conservative clerical hierarchy for Mr Rouhani. Grand Ayatollah Khameini, who, it was believed, had backed Mr Raisi in the race, issued a statement praising the ‘massive and epic’ level of voting, but pointedly did not congratulate the President directly, as he had done following the previous election in 2013.
A few days later there was another speech. This time in Riyadh, by Donald Trump, who was on his first Presidential trip abroad. It was basically an arms selling mission to the Gulf State, but he used it to launch a prolonged attack on Iran, accusing it of backing terrorism.
Mohammed Zarif, Iran’s urbane foreign minister, drily suggested that the US President would be better-off spending his time in Riyadh discussing how to avoid his Saudi hosts carrying out another 9/11 atrocity instead of making baseless accusations. But I recall ministers in Tehran worrying about what this meant for the nuclear agreement with international powers which was already under threat from Trump.
This was a matter of deep concern. Rouhani had been repeatedly attacked by his hardline rivals during the election campaign over the deal. They accused him of compromising the nation’s security and scathingly pointed out that it had not brought the much promised economic dividend in return. Trump’s anti-Iran speeches during the election were held up, with some success, as reasons why the West cannot be trusted.
Iran did make some economic gains from the agreement, such as being able to sell its oil in the world market. There were processions of foreign business delegations in my hotel in Tehran. But a lot of potential trade had been stymied by the US refusal to lift sanctions. And the situation has certainly been exacerbated further since then by Trump’s refusal to certify the deal and his demands that Congress impose more sanctions.
With economic problems mounting, the Rouhani government made public the budget, revealing for the first time the massive amounts religious organisations and the Revolutionary Guards were getting from the state while the public were experiencing cutbacks. Hesamodin Ashna, a close advisor of the President, tweeted about the ‘unbalanced distribution of the budget’. The aim may have been to garner support against the conservatives, but it also led to an outpouring of anger.
An Iranian official said: ‘There would have been an economic factor even without the issue of the nuclear agreement. The money the religious bodies were getting was a real revelation to the public. Meanwhile, the Government is carrying out reforms which mean cutting subsidies and privatising businesses and industries. This is not something totally new; Khatami tried to do this, so actually did Ahmadinejad.
‘In fact the Government is carrying out the kind of reforms that the West often demands from developing countries. We know that this policy comes with hardship for a time, people are suddenly not guaranteed jobs and cheap food. We also know that there are people who have been exploiting this to create trouble, maybe the same people in religious bodies worried about how much Government money they were getting made public.’
The hardship is real enough. Unemployment remains high at 12.4 per cent, up 1.4 per cent in the previous 12 months. There has been a steady rise in food prices with a drastic hike in the cost of poultry, by up to 40 per cent, one of the triggers for the protests. The government blames the shortage and price rise due to the necessity of a cull to prevent an outbreak of avian flu.
The charges of exploitation are harder to pin down. But we do know the rallies began in Mashhad, a religious centre which is the home of the hardline presidential candidate Raisi and his father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a senior figure among the conservative clergy. The slogans about food and jobs there soon became political and anti-Rouhani and anti-Government. Mr Alamolhada has been ordered to appear before Iran’s National Security Council to explain his role in what happened.
Some of my Iranian liberal friends claim that the Mashhad protests were orchestrated by the hardliners, but then they lost control. The marches which took part in other cities and towns soon became overtly political and also anti-clerical with direct attacks, something quite unusual, on the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Khameini.
Are these being orchestrated? The Iranian government says that is the case, banning — temporarily they say — the social networking sites including Instagram and Telegram to stop this. But some student demonstrators I have spoken to say that although they have used social media to arrange to meet up for the marches, this was only done informally; there had been absolutely no centralised planning.
Ardehshir, a 21-year-old engineering student, said ‘We are concerned about lack of jobs. What is the point of spending years at university if we can’t even get a job at the end? And there was also a lot of anger when people found out about the budget, how much the mullahs were getting while the rest of the people were suffering.’
He and his friends voted for Rouhani and want him to stay on as President. ‘Who else is there? We don’t want someone like Raisi and our parents remember how bad the Ahmadinejad times were. All we are saying is that the President and the Government must do more for the economy, make jobs. That’s what they promised at the election. Take the money away from the mullahs and create jobs.’
His friend, Sadegh, also wanted to stress that the protests were not coordinated. ‘There are people marching for all kinds of things: jobs, prices, the mullahs. There are differences, we don’t agree with what the principalists (conservatives) are marching for. Frankly we don’t even know what is going on in the countryside and in the small towns, it is quite confusing.’
Out of the confusion has come tales of conspiracy, especially in the rural areas. Up to three policemen and a member of the Revolutionary Guards as well as a boy of 11 and a 20-year-old man are said to have been shot dead with hunting rifles. A fire engine was hijacked and driven into a car, killing the family inside. To officials and supporters of the Government, this is evidence of a hidden hand at play.
Mohammad Marandi, an academic with influence in ruling circles, holds there that the protests had been orchestrated from Europe, including Britain and the US. ‘We have had instructions sent on how to make Molotov Cocktails, on targeting police stations through social media. We have seen the results on the streets with attempts to seize arms from police stations’ he said speaking after just attending a meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif on Tuesday. ‘What would the reaction be in the West if we had people in Iran sending instructions to carry out attacks on police stations in Paris, in London, in DC?’
Major European countries have resisted pressure from the Trump administration to sign a declaration condemning the Iranian Government. The US President has kept up an incessant Twitter offensive. But it does not appear to have had much traction inside Iran. Liberal middle-class protestors in Iran have a similar disdain for him as the liberal middle-class have elsewhere in the world. The working-class followers of hardliners detest Trump for what they see as his anti-Muslim policies.
‘We want changes about how wealth is distributed in this country, it’s something Iranians need to do. The last thing we want is to be seen to be following Trump and America, but we are afraid that’s how it may be portrayed’ was the resigned view of Adeleh, a 28-year-old pharmacist. ‘That is the danger, that he will be used against us.’ Not for the first time, Iran’s hardliners find Donald Trump useful to their cause.
Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of The Independent