By SM Farid Mirbagheri
Recent protests that have shaken the Iranian government to its very foundation are the outcome of a long process of accumulated dissent by the Iranian people against the revolutionary establishment that came to power four decades ago. Since July 1999 these protests have gradually caught the attention of the Western press and the media but the shift in the nature of the revolt over the years from seeking reform to demanding fundamental change is remarkable.
The theocracy that has effectively ruled Iran since 1979 claims, strangely enough, to be also democratic. In revolutionary Iran people can vote only for candidates who have been through the strict filtering of religious organs and all parliamentary decisions first have to be approved by a council of theologians. Invariably all major decisions of the state are subject to the veto of the Supreme Leader. This brand of democracy referred to as ‘religious democracy’ by the ‘reformist faction’ is hardly what common people mean by freedom and free elections.
Although there were hopes inside and outside Iran that structural reform would slowly but surely come from within the system, in the end people’s trust in ‘reformist’ leaders turned to bitter disappointment when their uprising in 1999 and 2009 were first undermined by the so-called chieftains of ‘reform’ and then crushed by the authorities. In the 2017 and 2019 protest the chanting of “reformists or radicals, we are done with you both” by demonstrators indicated the clear disillusionment of the people with all the factions within the system.
Although the overnight increase of 200 per cent in the price of petrol sparked off the recent street protests, the underlying causes run deeper than that. The overriding emphasis of the Islamic Republic on its foreign policy at a huge cost to the Iranian economy is but one of the contentious issues that has fueled the dissent. Rampant high-level corruption, endemic unemployment, run-away inflation and a prevalent sense of despair have all added to the feeling of frustration and the widespread anger in the country.
Amnesty International has put the number of deaths in recent protests at well over 200 while others talk of much higher figures. Authorities are now using threats and other callous measures to contain the emotional/social impact of the funeral of those killed and interrogating thousands arrested during and after the unrest. The Iranian diaspora, spread all over the world but concentrated in the United States, have also shown solidarity with their countrymen back at home. They have organised a wave of demonstrations across Europe and the US urging the international community to take firm action against the Iranian government.
Though contained for now it would be hard to believe that this is the last of the protests in Iran. There is now the international recognition of the Iranian people wanting fundamental change in their country, which only serves to boost the morale of the protesters. Short of a complete overhaul of its policies and irreversible turnabout by the Islamist establishment in Iran to preempt the oncoming social explosion, the winds of change will inevitably come to sweep the country in the not too distant future.
SM Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia