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The November 2019 popular protests in Iran showcased the rift between the state and its citizens, largely triggered by economic difficulties. Such hardships are not the only cause of deepening dissatisfaction, although they are currently the most powerful motivation for social tension, dominating all aspects of life for much of the population. While other grievances, such as rights for women and minorities as well as political freedom, have remained unresolved and indeed can trigger unrest by smaller interest groups (i.e. urban middle-class university graduates), poverty is pervasive.
Over the past year, as economic conditions deteriorated with the decline of income and rise of inflation, several senior officials in Iran have openly raised concerns over the increasing risk of uprisings in the near future and have called for rigorous planning by the regime to avoid an escalation of tensions. The government response has mainly involved greater use of violence and surveillance rather than finding a practical solution to directly lessen the economic pressure. In May, Brigadier-General Hassan Karami, the commander of Iran’s anti-riot police, confirmed that the forces under his command had received substantial resources (training and equipment) and were “at the height of preparedness” to respond to any potential uprising.
Iran’s anti-riot police – the Special Unit – was founded by the most loyal forces of the Islamic Revolution in the early years while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was president of the Islamic Republic. Since 1999, the Special Unit has become the most fearsome face of suppression during Iran’s popular uprisings. However, on several occasions, including the demonstrations in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, other forces (including those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) were also called upon to help the Special Unit. Demonstrations also took place in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Each time, the government’s response became more brutal and the number of forces that were mobilized to suppress the demonstrators increased.
The regime has hinted that it is willing to use foreign forces, if needed, to crack down on popular unrest, though such plans have never been officially confirmed. Nevertheless, speculation resurfaced when government-owned news agencies published pictures of Hezbollah forces assisting Iran’s IRGC in flood-affected areas of Iran in 2018. Considering tensions were rising in those areas and people expressed frustration during visits of senior officials, the presence of Hezbollah forces was perceived by the public as a signal that the government would use foreign forces, as necessary, to suppress unrest in those areas and beyond.
In addition to the mobilization of forces, the regime has scaled up violence and surveillance on dissidents, journalists, charity workers, and labor and human rights activists. Kioomars Marzban, a 26-year-old Iranian journalist, was arrested and received a 23-year prison sentence (allegedly for “cooperation with aggressive foreign governments, insulting the sacred Islamic and revolutionary values and insulting the supreme leader”). Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old former wrestling champion who was arrested following anti-government protests in 2018, was executed in September after a heavily criticized and opaque trial in which he was accused of killing a security guard during the protests. In a handwritten letter and several voice recordings that were smuggled out of the prison, Afkari confirmed he was tortured and forced to confess to the conviction despite his innocence. Sharmin Meymandi Nejad, a prominent charity worker and outspoken critic of government policies (particularly those related to fighting drugs and poverty in Iran) and the founder of one of the most popular charity organizations in Iran (Imam Ali’s Popular Students Relief Society) was detained (mainly in solitary confinement) for 129 days by the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC without a formal indictment. He was released on bail due to deteriorating health conditions. His arrest warrant accused him of “insulting the supreme leader.” In an audio recording that has been circulating via social media, he was heard calling the IRGC’s late commander, Qassim Suleimani, “a murderer of children.” His arrest came after several episodes of hacking into the email accounts of staff at his organization. Most recently, an Iranian teacher in Tehran received a lashing sentence for drawing cartoons of senior politicians. The minister of education pressed charges on the teacher, but, after public outcry on social media about the sentence, he announced in a tweet that the charges were withdrawn.
In recent years in Iran there have been increasing signs indicating a widening rift between the people and the regime, such as low election turnout, public criticism of the government, and broadcast and social media coverage of citizens’ frustration with and lack of trust in the regime.
Senior officials have recently acknowledged the growing risk of popular unrest in Iran and have taken precautionary measures to minimize such risk. The funeral of Iran’s most celebrated musician and critic of the government, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, took place in the northeastern city of Mashhad under severe security measures. In order to prevent a mass gathering, the government restricted air travel to Mashhad and blocked main roads in the city.
Beyond such security measures, the government has provided no clear solutions to address the main causes of discontent, such as rising poverty, and frequently blames external factors for the country’s economic hardship. In September, President Hassan Rouhani publicly accused the U.S. administration for being the “cause of all the crimes against the Iranian nation” and said that “if people want to curse someone” for the country’s economic hardships, they should be cursing the White House (as opposed to the Iranian government).
The low turnout in Iran’s February parliamentary elections highlighted citizens’ dissatisfaction with the government. Since the last elections, debates among the supporters and opponents of the Islamic Republic have been rampant on social and broadcast media. Critics of the government openly share their lack of hope in this government and have been calling for a national boycott of all elections held by the Islamic Republic. While the supporters of the state (e.g. economic interest groups that benefit from the existing rent distribution mechanisms; ideological supporters of the Islamic Republic as the protector of Shia political Islam; and those who believe a change in the current political structure will lead to instability in the country) express the importance of participating in elections.
The upcoming presidential election, scheduled for June 2021, will be an important political event that can further reveal the depth of this rift. The rise of economic hardships, widespread poverty, and increasing use of violence by the Islamic Republic are major grievances for a large portion of the population, and these issues will continue to dominate state-citizen relations in the months ahead of the election. Low voter participation in the presidential election will be an indicator of the decline of confidence in the regime and a clear expression of the widening state-citizen gap in Iran.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She is the Marie Curie Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies working on Iran’s economic diversification and economic resilience strategies.
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