An editorial published in Iran’s Javan Newspaper, which is closely linked to the Revolutionary Guards, has set out reasons why the recent protests, which began in Mashhad on December 28 and began spreading to several provincial cities the next day, are unlike any previous unrest Iran has experienced over the last almost four decades.
The article was written by Dr. Abdollah Ganji, the paper’s managing editor, who holds a PhD in political science and is a professor at Allameh Tabatabaei University.
Recent spates of unrest in some cities in the country have, in their own way, brought a new experience to the people and the state that can add to earlier experiences and offer new and different lessons and attitudes. These instances of unrest have characteristics that make them different from all other riots, protests and unrest after the revolution, although they might share certain aspects with previous cases in terms of how foreigners have handled it.
1. The first and the most important characteristic is that, unlike in 1999 and 2009, the reformists are not behind the unrest. The low number of participants, especially in Tehran, and their lack of leadership is notable when seen from this viewpoint. Although some of the detainees were members of Rouhani’s campaign headquarters, the reformists are not behind them. But since there is no distinct demarcation line between opponents of the regime and a segment of the reformists, these elements play on both sides and, with their dualistic attitudes, go back and forth inside and outside regime.
2. Lack of a specific demand is the second characteristic. Even though the government and the elite’s mentality lean toward questions of [unemployment, prices and income], except for the first day one did not hear such demands in any town. That is why the government cannot provide a clear and decisive answer to their demands.
3. The role of mobile social networks in provoking the participants in this unrest is a new experience. In a survey, 60 percent of Tehranis and 54 percent of the residents of provincial towns who participated in the unrest said that counter-revolutionary channels and especially Amad News had incited them. Mass incitement and the two-way communication capability of these media is a new phenomenon that did not exist in the past.
4. The movement from the periphery to the center is another characteristic of the unrest. Usually social movements rush out from the capital but this time it started from other cities and especially small towns. This can be explained in different ways. If we believe that the unrest was pre-planned then various reasons can account for it, including the shortcomings of local police in responding, weakness in crisis management and the susceptibility [of protesters] to provocations due to lack of political sophistication. But if we believe that the fundamental reason is the economy and unemployment then it appears more logical that it started from outlying towns.
5. The unrest spread to specific regions but not to the whole country, and this is a new phenomenon that must be studied. It must be studied why Sunni-majority regions, big provinces like Fars and East Azerbaijan and cities in the province of Kerman and others were relatively calm. The concentration of insurgency in Lorestan and Isfahan provinces certainly has sociological, cultural and ethnic reasons and must be studied.
6. Historical events in some cities must have had some influence over recent troubles. The activities of [counter-revolutionary] groups in the first decade after the revolution in a number of cities in Lorestan is quite well known. On the other hand, the cities of Khomeini Shahr, Najaf Abad and Falavarjan [in Isfahan province] are among the cities that had the highest number of martyrs during the Sacred Defense [the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war] and, from the point of view of religiosity they are on top, too. But two factors cannot be disregarded if we want to understand the situation in these cities. The first is that the Zayanderud River goes dry exactly when it reaches these towns, and this has played a deciding role in employment, agriculture and, ultimately, their anger. Secondly, frozen remnants of Mehdi Hashemi’s gang and its executed members live in this area, including the small town of Qahderijan. Naturally, they are waiting for revenge and they would enter the arena given a chance. [The reference to Mehdi Hashemi is not about the son of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but instead about a relative of Ayatollah Montazeri, once considered to be the heir apparent of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Hashemi was executed in 1987. The official reasons for his execution were that he was guilty of terrorism and had murdered an ayatollah, but some analysts have argued that he was put to death because he was against Iran’s dealing with the US in Iran-Contra Affair and had leaked details about the deal.]
The severity of violence and especially armed action in this region is an indication of the feelings of hatred and revenge and ultimately cannot be understood without taking into account the painful murders in the 1980s and the decisive response of the government. The rot at the time was such that Imam [Khomeini] personally wrote a letter to Mohsen Rezaei, commander of the Revolutionary Guards at the time, in which he dissolved the Guards corps operating in Falavarjan. The Guards corps had to be rebuilt with new recruits. [Here the author argues that, after crackdowns in the 1980s, the people of Falavarjan county, where the town of Qahderijan is located, held a deep grudge against the regime. In the recent protests, six protesters were killed during an attack on a police station in Qahderijan. The local governor said the protesters had been armed.]
7. The numbers show that most of the detainees are married and have no previous record. So even though slogans about livelihood were heard only on the first day, employment and [the difficulties of] making a living might account for people being receptive to provocation.
8. Threats to collective and individual interests can bring protesters to the streets anywhere in the world but actions and slogans that incite destruction and sabotage are indications of hate. This hatred can be seen as an accumulation of feelings of humiliation, discrimination and class inequality originating from the governing institutions’ mismanagement in solving problems, the improper conduct of those who are acting under the banner of the revolution and the “explanations” opponents of the Islamic Republic offer young people as to why the republic conducts itself the way it does. One of the most important lessons for various governing institutions is to concentrate on the pathology of this hatred and its underlying causes.
9. The small size of gatherings in all cities was one of the characteristics of the unrest. Besides lack of support from the reformists, one can cite other reasons for this, including slogans that did not reflect people’s real demands, the intrusion of monarchists, the Turncoats [People’s Mojahedin Organization], western media and figures and attacks on the buildings. One of the most important lessons of this unrest should be a revision of [next year’s] budget to attend to the interests of the people and to change its financial priorities.