Iran warned of a tough crackdown on Sunday against demonstrators posing one of the boldest challenges to its clerical leaders since nationwide unrest shook the Islamist theocracy in 2009.
How serious are the protests?
Political protests are rare in Iran, where security services are pervasive. And yet tens of thousands of people have protested across the country since Thursday. The demonstrations are the biggest since unrest in 2009 that followed the disputed re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
They began in Iran’s second city of Mashhad in the northeast on Thursday and spread to Tehran and other urban centers. Iranians vented their anger over a sharp increase in prices of basic items like eggs, and a government proposal to increase fuel prices in next year’s budget.
Some protesters also vented their rage over high unemployment and savings that were lost after investments in unlicensed credit and financial institutions turned sour.
The demonstrations initially focused on economic hardships and alleged corruption, turned into political rallies. Anger was soon directed at the clerical leadership in power since the 1979 revolution, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran’s cumbersome system of dual clerical and republican rule.
How will the government respond?
The government’s main challenge is to find a way to suppress the uprising without provoking more anger.
So far, while the authorities have threatened to take strong measures, in practice they have largely been restrained. Although two protesters were killed and hundreds arrested, many believe the police have shown some self-control throughout most of the demonstrations.
Iran’s National Security Council held urgent meetings and so far has decided to block social media and messaging apps to restrict the flow of information and calls for demonstrations.
The state has a powerful security apparatus it can call upon. But so far it has refrained from despatching the elite Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia, and plain-clothed security forces who crushed the 2009 uprising and killed dozens of protesters.
In the meantime, the government backed down on plans to raise fuel prices and promised to increase cash handouts to the poor and create more jobs in coming years.
What are the main demands of protesters?
Iranians across the country want higher wages and an end to alleged graft. Many also question the wisdom of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, where it has intervened in Syria and Iraq in a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia.
The country’s financial support for Palestinians and the Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah also angered Iranians, who want their government to focus on domestic economic problems instead.
The wide spectrum of slogans showed that the wave of demonstrations cover a range of social classes who have different demands.
Unlike the unrest in 2009, the latest protests appear to be more spontaneous without a clear leader. This may be a more dangerous scenario for authorities, because it means they cannot round up the figureheads, a solution that was employed in 2009.
Some demonstrators even shouted “Reza Shah, bless your soul”, a reference to the king who ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941, and his Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s first leader.