‘A second Iranian revolution is brewing’

Crackdown: Around 500 people have been arrested for protesting against the government. © Getty

Are the protests gripping Iran a cause for excitement or concern? Violent clashes have broken out in dozens of Iranian cities, threatening to topple the country’s religious elite.

The protests began a week ago with local demonstrations against rising food prices. They could end with revolution, instability and — possibly — democracy.

Iran’s ruling class is teetering. From small, conservative towns to the big cities, thousands of citizens have joined a mass uprising against the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Rouhani has vowed to crack down on the “lawbreakers”. Yesterday, an army general declared the “sedition” over, and yet protests continued. So far, at least 21 people have died in the violence.

President Donald Trump has tweeted that he has “respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government”, adding that the US would be watching out for any human rights violations.

Iran last saw a mass uprising in 2009, when people took to streets to demand a recount in the disputed presidential election. Protests took place largely in the capital, Tehran, and were determinedly nonviolent.

This time is different. The protests first intensified in small towns, as well as in the most religious cities. Violence has been widespread. The protesters are also leaderless, and their messages more disparate. The slogans vary from “Death to the Ayatollah” to “An end to unemployment and corruption” to “Down with embezzlers”.

The main focus of the anger is economics, rather than ideals like freedom of speech and liberal democracy.

The economy has grown since Rouhani took office in 2013, but the poor are still not feeling the benefits. The unemployment rate among those aged 15 to 29 is over 24%. It is even higher among women. Around 150,000 educated Iranians leave the country every year. Meanwhile the country’s rich flaunt their wealth more than ever before.

In the past, unrest in Iran has been a battle between the reformers, represented by Rouhani, and the conservatives, led by the Ayatollah. But now this divide has been transcended; both are targets of the demonstrators’ ire.

Whispers of a second Iranian revolution are growing louder. Is it a cause for excitement?

Persian Spring

We should cheer on this regime’s downfall, say some. Iranians are a fundamentally secular people living under a brutal theocracy which threatens its neighbours and violates countless human rights. Any failure to support these protests would empower hard-liners all over the Middle East.

We have seen this all before, sigh pessimists. The popular uprising, the destabilisation of a nasty regime, the growing calls for intervention, the blind hope that everything will turn out all right. It almost never does. If the Arab Spring taught us anything, it is that stability is always preferable to turmoil.

You Decide

  1. Would a second Iranian revolution be good for the country and for the world at large?
  2. Should Western leaders declare their support for the protests?

Activities

  1. List three ways in which Iran differs from its Middle Eastern neighbours.
  2. Research two countries involved in the Arab Spring of 2011. Write 500 words comparing what happened in each country, and how successful the attempts at revolution were.

Some People Say...

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

John F. Kennedy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Thousands of people have demonstrated all over Iran in the past week in what appears to be the most powerful challenge to the ruling elite’s power since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Unlike previous protests, most of the demonstrators are poor and their grievances are largely economic in nature. From the rare footage available of the protests, we know that the regime has responded violently.
What do we not know?
Whether this really represents the “Persian Spring”. Certainly its economic origins are similar to the convulsions that seized the Arab world in 2011, started by a Tunisian fruit picker who set himself alight in protest at having his wares confiscated. We still do not know whether this Iranian unrest will topple the regime, or what the consequences of that would be.

Word Watch

Local demonstrations
These took place in Mashhad, the country’s second largest city and the home of its most important religious site.
Hassan Rouhani
Rouhani’s rise to power was seen as a victory for the 2009 protesters, who called themselves The Green Movement. A comparative moderate, he encourages personal freedom and free access to information, and has improved Iranian women's rights.
Ayatollah Khamenei
The most powerful man in the country, the Ayatollah is the highest ranking Islamic cleric. Under the constitution, he is responsible for the armed forces, the judicial system, state television, and many other key government organisations.
Mass uprising
There was another uprising in 1999, involving a peaceful protest of students advocating freedom of speech.
Secular
For example, alcohol has long been tolerated in Iranian society even though it has been banned under religious law since 1979. There have also been protests about the fact that women are obliged to wear headscarves.
Arab Spring
A wave of protests in the Middle East in 2011.

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