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Iranian Revolt Against Theocratic Rule

Iran can be said to be a theocratic state, since the clerics and above all the ‘Ayatollahs’ have a large say in the day to day affairs of the state. It cannot also be called a fully democratic state, since the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei can overrule the executive state president. Since there are elections on a regular basis, it can be termed a ‘quasi’ democracy, but not a ‘liberal democracy’ in the Western sense. Of late, Iran had been pursuing an ‘aggressive’ foreign policy and pursuing many proxy wars in the Middle East neighbourhood by supporting states and movements with Shia Muslim components (the other major sect of Islam). Thus it was involved in the wars in Iraq and Syria and supporting the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It also supported Hamas (in the Gaza strip) the main rival of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Because of the close political, and above all economic relations of the Emirate of Qatar with Iran – both share huge oil and gas fields in the Persian/Arabian Gulf – the former has faced the ire of Saudi Arabia (the supreme leader of the Sunni sect), Iran’s main rival in the region.
Without doubt, Iran’s myriad foreign adventures has cost it much money and resources with little remaining for domestic development. After nearly two decades of the ‘Islamic Revolution’, people were seeing their high hopes being shattered. Most people had also heard of the various political/economic ‘revolutions’ in various other countries of the region. The cell-phone ‘revolution’ had also not bypassed Iran, with almost 50 million cell-phones in the country. The economic condition of the Iranian countryside was really dire. The country was, therefore, ripe for an uprising. It was in such a situation that on December 28 last year, preachers in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran’s second-most populated in the north-east (near Afghanistan and Turkmenistan), called on followers to protest against rising prices. Many of these followers had backed conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi who had contested against reformist President Hassan Rouhani in 2017’s presidential election.
Once the flame had been lit, it spread like wild-fire to 20 other small towns and regions (mostly in the northern and eastern parts) of the country. The high level of discontent became apparent and was loudly articulated. The mass protests morphed into a potpourri of agitations, including among others, against poor economic performance and sluggish economic growth, the very high youth unemployment [27 percent], inadequate government response to massive earthquake in north-west Iran last November, factory workers, pensioners and others had been unpaid since months. It was ironic that the demonstrations, that sometimes became violent, were concentrated in areas that have long supported the ruling clergy. More than 20 have died in clashes with the police. Since the protests spread mainly via social media, these were shut down by the government.
Reformist President Rouhani attempted to placate the agitators by assuring them that they had a right to protest, but should remain non-violent and assuring them that their grievances would be addressed. But this failed to have any impact. These protests were the largest since 2009 (against hardline president Ahmadinejad’s re-election). The number of demonstrators hass been in the hundreds and thousands, and appear to have been spontaneous, without any clear leadership. In places, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s pictures were torn down. Intially, the police was tasked with handling the unrest, but then the Revolutionary Guards had been called in. The protesters were also restricted to the lower-earning classes without any support from the better-earning middle-classes. This showed a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots – the prevalence of rampant inequality as in many other emerging economies like China and India.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, accused Iran’s enemies of supporting the protests that erupted two weeks ago. He was apparently referring to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have long been opposed to Iran’s cleric-led rule and are eager to see, even encourage, dramatic change. However, the protests appear to have caught Iranians at home and abroad, nations in the region, the United States and European countries completely off guard. The theocratic regime has now gone on the offensive and thousands of government supporters staged rallies in Iran on Saturday, in a backlash. More than a week of unrest has seen 22 people die and more than 1,000 arrested.
President Trump has proclaimed his support for those in the streets, saying it is time for change. However, it is doubtful whether foreign statements of support will have any influence in swaying anyone on the ground in Iran. Its foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [received his entire higher education in the US and holds a Ph.D. in International Law & Policy from the University of Denver] ridiculed Trump over what he called the foreign policy “blunder” of trying to raise its recent protests at the UN Security Council. Furthermore, the Council had “rebuffed the US’s naked attempt to hijack its mandate,” Zarif wrote on Twitter, and the “Majority emphasized the need to fully implement the JCPOA [“Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or nuclear deal between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union] and to refrain from interference in [the] internal affairs of others.” Trump’s sound and fury only obfuscated the situation.
Saudi Arabia and Israel both view Iran as a major security threat in the region and are mistrustful of its nuclear programme and apprehensive about its long-range missile programme. For this reason, the two countries are supposed to be cooperating covertly, and the Saudi crown prince is said to have visited Israel clandestinely. The Saudis are trying to stem Iran spreading its influence in the region and accuse it of backing the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, including supplying them with missiles fired at the kingdom. Israel has fought a series of wars against Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, both backed by Iran, and has carried out strikes against suspected Iranian arms deliveries to Hezbollah.
The protests which had initially been encouraged by the rightist clerics over economic issues boomeranged and quickly spiralled out of control, turning against the regime as a whole. The regime then quickly marshaled its own supporters and organized various rallies, which were claimed to be “the people’s response to the rioters and troublemakers and their supporters”, according to state television. This also repeated official claims that the unrest was orchestrated by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia with the complicity of “anti-revolutionary” groups. As in 2009, the ‘Revolutionary Guards’ and their affiliated ‘Basij militia’ massively suppressed the unrest: “Iran’s revolutionary people along with tens of thousands of Basij forces, police and the Intelligence Ministry have broken down the chain [of unrest].”However, the writing is clearly on the wall. After all, this was the third time Ayatollah Khamenei was hearing the demand for his nemesis and it was stronger than 2009 and 2013. For Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh ( Research Associate at the London School of Economics) it was “ clear that the public outcry against the Islamic Republic’s repressive methods and the economic malaise cannot be written off as a mere conspiracy, or whitewashed with mass pro-regime demonstrations.”
According to Ms. Torfeh: “The question now is whether Rouhani can use the protests to his benefit and convince the supreme leaderof the need to implement the “major economic corrective surgery” to which he referred to in his speech [to the protesters and the nation].” This may be difficult while US sanctions hang over Iran’s economy. However, with continuing repressive measures in place, and no support from the higher classes or the reformist faction of the state, the students and the lower classes will have to wait for another day to usher in their ‘new revolution’. Laura Secor, an Iran expert, cites a political scientist: “Iran is the exception that proves the rule: It’s the textbook example of the country that meets every precondition for democratic transition but still refuses to change.” [New York Times, January 8, 2018]

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