Thousands of Iranians took to the streets in anti-government protests across Iran on Friday in a rare and stunning show of public defiance that threatened to spill over into more unrest.
The widespread protests, likely organized through social media, began on Thursday with raucous demonstrations over the economic problems Iranians are currently facing. At least 50 people were arrested in the cities where protests took place.
But the themes of the protests on Thursday and Friday quickly shifted, with the protesters — overwhelmingly in their teens, twenties, and thirties — calling for freedom of political prisoners and even an end to the clerical regime. They chanted slogans drawn from the 2009 uprising that followed the disputed reelection of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sometimes even calling out Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by name.
“Seyed Ali (Khamenei), excuse us,” they chanted in the central city of Isfahan, in one of the numerous videos taken by protesters and uploaded to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram. “Now we have to rise up.”
Media is tightly controlled in Iran, and it remained difficult to measure the depth, scope, and severity of the protests as night fell on Friday, but they suggested a layer of seething anger at both Khamenei, close to the hardliners, and the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who has been unable to deliver on promises of economic and social reform. This week, police in Tehran announced they would ease up on arresting women for wearing immodest clothing, perhaps to cool tempers in anticipation of the protests.
“In general the frustration and anger that led to 2009 is still alive in society, and the crackdown has not made it disappear,” Omid Memarian, an independent Iran analyst and journalist based in New York told BuzzFeed News. “The causes of all that anger and frustration were never addressed by the government, by the state. They never addressed issues of equality, discrimination, lack of freedom and bad economic policies.”
Inflation and unemployment have hobbled prospects for Iran’s youth, as well as the lower-middle class. One trigger for the protests appears to have been a spike in the price of eggs.
Rouhani had vowed that the 2015 nuclear deal with the West would improve the country’s economy, but growth has fallen far short of expectations. Many of Iran’s economic problems are rooted in the control corrupt and incompetent hardliners have over levers of the economy, everything from the travel industry to imports and the gigantic energy sector. Rouhani has been unable to roll back corruption or tweak the economy without taking on the entrenched positions of the hardliners.
Friday’s protests were by far the worst political unrest Iran has experienced since the period after the 2009 vote, which triggered months of arrests and violence, extending far across Iran’s geography. Video showed protesters, sometimes with children in tow, scuffling with police in the northern port city of Rasht and calling for the end of the regime in Qom, the city that educated most of the country’s clerical leadership.
“Leave Syria alone,” went one slogan used throughout the day, in reference to Iran’s ambitious military intervention in the Syrian conflict, “give a thought to us.”
There were also small reports of protests in the capital, Tehran, the epicenter of the 2009 uprising.
Tehran’s deputy governor-general for security affairs told the Iranian Labour News Agency that “a number of protesters” have been arrested at a small protest in a square in the city.
Analysts speculated that hardliners had encouraged the original economic protest Thursday to undermine and embarrass Rouhani, a plan that appears to have backfired as people took to the streets for a wider set of grievances. Rouhani’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri appeared to make a reference to such a scenario in a speech delivered Friday.
“The ones who trigger political moves in the streets may not be the ones who will put an end to it, since others may ride the wave they have started, and they must know that their action will backfire on them,” he said at a medical conference, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency.
But Rouhani himself may have contributed to the anger. For the first time ever, when he unveiled the new budget a month ago, he included previously undisclosed details about how much money went to unaccountable religious foundations, research centers, and other institutions close to the leadership.
“People learned how the religious class is basically swallowing the big chunk of the budget without any accountability while people’s daily life is becoming harder,” said Memarian.
Rouhani is a wily insider, and has in the past proven adept at using such dissatisfaction as a cudgel against the hardliners’ control. But the protests could also further empower hardliners if perceived as part of a foreign intervention. Already Iranian news agencies were pointing to US Senator Tom Cotton, an Iran hawk, tweeting his support for the protesters. Fars, a news agency seen as close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, denounced the protests as organized by “counter-revolutionaries.”
President Trump on Friday night blamed the protests on Iranians' desire for a regime free of corruption and terrorism. He added a warning to the Iranian government should it violate its people's rights.
"The world is watching!"