Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought to cool tempers Sunday after four days of protests over rising prices and political repression that were marked by escalating violence.
Unarmed demonstrators in dozens of cities and towns across the country showed increasing willingness to confront security forces and attack symbols of state power, while government officials signaled they were moving to clamp down on the protests.
Speaking at a Cabinet meeting, Rouhani defended the right to peaceful protest but warned that security forces would not tolerate vandalism and chaos.
“According to the constitution, and based on basic and citizens' rights, the people are completely free to make criticism and even protest,” he said in comments reported by news agencies. “The government, however, will most certainly not tolerate the action of any group that wants to vandalize public property or disrupt public order and create social disorder."
Rouhani also blasted US President Donald Trump, who in statements defended the rights of Iranian protesters and warned that “the world is watching” what is unfolding in Iran.
“This gentleman in America, who is now trying to sympathize with our nation, appears to have forgotten that he called the Iranian nation terrorists several months ago,” Rouhani said, describing Trump as an enemy of Iran “from the top of his head to his very toes.”
Despite Rouhani’s conciliatory tone, violence showed no signs of stopping Sunday. Images of fiery protests and streets flooded with tear gas and riot police poured out of the country.
At least two people have died already in the protests, according to Iranian officials. Activists have counted as many as six dead, including five in the southwestern province of Lorestan and in Zanjan, on the eastern border. Video footage has emerged showing gunfire and scenes of lifeless young men being hurried to medical facilities. Scores have been arrested, with video showing at least some being taken to notorious detention centers such as Tehran’s Evin prison.
Iranian security officials warned that they were closely watching people’s behavior on the streets and in the internet forums where the protests appear to be organized.
Iranian politicians all appeared to be struggling to address the swell of protests. In his statement, Rouhani vowed to address public concerns. “Resolving some of these problems are time-consuming and the government and the nation must join hands in order to resolve them," Rouhani went on to say.
"What happened in some regions of the country over the past few days provided another opportunity to reveal the true colors of those who nurture hatred and vengeance against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its people," Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli said during a meeting on Sunday, according to the Afkar news website. "Those who exploited the patience and tolerance of law enforcement force during these days must definitely answer for this lawlessness and disrespect toward the people.”
Iran imposes tough limitations on journalists, barring most international correspondents from freely working inside the country and placing severe restrictions on diplomats, visiting scholars, and independent local observers. Much of the news about the protests, which began Thursday in the eastern city of Mashhad, comes from unverified video footage distributed online by ideologically driven activist networks with spotty track records.
But while the magnitude, aims, and composition of the unfolding protests remained tough to pin down, the scope of the unrest — the worst political crisis in the country since a 2009 mass uprising — had clearly stunned Iranian officials and analysts monitoring the country. Unlike the 2009 uprising, triggered by the disputed reelection of hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the protests erupted not just in large cosmopolitan centers but across dozens of small cities and towns across the country. Many erupted in eastern and western border regions that have long accused Tehran of ignoring their economic and social demands.
“This is an expression of both social economic and political grievance that have been simmering for a long time,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a scholar at the Brookings Doha Center and the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Videos of the protesters showed mostly young men in knockoff designer blue jeans or tracksuits in far-flung, little-known towns chanting radical slogans calling for an end of the Islamic Republic. They demanded death to both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a hardliner, and the twice-elected President Rouhani, who drew the votes of the young, women, and minorities in 2013 and 2017 by promising reform. Among the protesters spotted in videos, there were few images of the sort of well-coiffed middle-class women who took part in the 2009 uprising. Instead, young, gruff men fearlessly confronted armed security forces.
“It seems to be more people involved from lower- and lower-middle-class strata of society,” said Fathollah-Nejad.
Unemployment and inflation, exacerbated by years of Western sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, endemic corruption, and gross incompetence, have frayed hopes among Iran’s young people. “Everyone is dissatisfied,” the daughter of a Tehran area leader of the pro-regime Basij militia said via the Telegram messaging service. “When there are protests, they go into the streets.”
Despite growing economic hardship and palpable anger, many Iran analysts assumed that the rural towns and lower-middle-class districts where the unrest is rooted were the regime’s base of support; Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, is considered a conservative bastion. Voting patterns confirmed that rural areas tended to support the status quo, despite 17 million nonvoters out of an eligible 55 million.
“I think the grassroots and lower middle class are venting out anger,” said one hardened Tehran journalist, a veteran of both the 2009 uprising and 1999 student protests which shook the country. He said he was somewhat baffled by the latest turn. “The destination of the protests is unknown,” he said.
Iranian politicians all appeared to be struggling to address the swell of protests. Neither Khamenei nor Rouhani had publicly addressed the protests by late Sunday. Mohammed-Reza Aref, a reformist leader allied with Rouhani, said he sympathized with the protesters’ aims but warned against breaking the law. "Attending to the welfare of our dear people is the duty of statesmen,” he wrote on Twitter. “However, we should be aware not to act in a way that creates tensions in the country, as this is the desire of ill-wishers of the nation that seek to take away people's hope.”
But the protesters appear unheedful of and untethered to any of Iran’s political factions or civil society streams. In four days of protests, there were few if any of the green banners or ribbons that symbolized the 2009 revolt, or chants in support of former president Mohammad Khatami, who sought to liberalize Iran during his 1997 to 2005 tenure, or reformist politicians Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both under house arrest.
"There is no space for appeasement in the current demonstrations, no signal to Khatami, nor to Mousavi,” one Tehran social scientist wrote in a note on her private Facebook page. “But what are these people looking for? [Expressing] great anger and overthrowing the regime at any price? Do not let these demonstrations go the direction of the Arab Spring and Syria and Libya, which would be really terrible.”
Several participants in the 2009 revolt said they were not taking part in the current unrest — and did not know anyone who was. The lack of ties to the reformists may make them darlings of Iranian exiles in the West and a clique of influential Iran opponents in Washington who don’t distinguish between Iranian factions, but it also risks alienating a sizeable number of middle-class Iranians, including tens of millions who waited in long lines to vote for Rouhani seven months ago. Images of protesters attacking banks and government offices may frighten away Iranians worried the country will descend into chaos.
The protesters' lack of any patron within the political elite could lower the cost of using violence against them. There were already reports and video suggesting the security forces were rapidly gathering equipment and personnel to crack down. The Iranian government has many arrows in its quiver, including the special riot police, the plainclothes Basij militia, which answers to the Revolutionary Guard, and violent religious zealots with informal ties to the security forces. In 2009 rumors surfaced that the members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia were being deployed to crack down on protesters in the capital and other major cities. Eight years later, not only does Iran have access to Hezbollah, it has also formed new groups drawn from Shia in Iraq and Afghanistan and has shown a willingness to deploy them in ambitious ways.
Many observers also noted the presence of the Mujahedin Khalq organization, or MKO, in the organization of the protests. The bizarre, cultlike Marxist Islamist group has strong ties to Washington but is widely despised by Iranians. Iran has reacted mercilessly to any movement tainted by the MKO, and Iranians have generally approved; the group partnered with Saddam Hussein in Iran’s eight-year war against Iraq.
As young Iranians began to gather for protests on Sunday, Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency issued an ominous warning that Sunni jihadis were rumored to be preparing violence against demonstrators in what many Iranians considered a pretext for violent attacks on protests. “These groups commissioned forces to shoot or stab people at the protests and attribute killings to the police, Basij or the Revolutionary Guard,” said the statement, carried on Mehr’s Telegram channel.