The street protests that started on Thursday, December 28 in the holy city of Mashhad, and in Yazd, Kashmar and Neishabur, spread to other major Iranian cities on Friday, including Qom, Isfahan, Kermanshah, Quchan, Rasht and Ahvaz. Videos shared online show protesters chanting anti-government slogans and security forces using water cannons, teargas and clubs to disperse the crowd.
“Forget Syria; give us some thought!”
“Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic”
“The youth have no jobs but the mullah is riding a car”
“People are paupers while the Master [Khamenei] lives like a god”
These were just a few of the anti-government slogans the demonstrators chanted. And one in particular must have been especially jarring to the ears of the Islamic Republic authorities: “Reza Shah, rest in peace,” protesters called out in praise of Reza Shah (1878-1944), the 20th-century modernizer king and founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, which was overthrown during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mohammad Taqi Rahbar is Isfahan’s Acting Friday Prayers Leader. A “principlist” conservative who represented Isfahan in the Iranian parliament for two terms, he is a member of the conservative Combatant Clergy Association. He talked to IranWire about the demonstrations, and what he found most shocking.
Over the last two days, there have been protests and demonstrations in various cities around Iran, from Mashhad and Rasht to your own city, Isfahan. What’s your view of these protests?
It is a little difficult to comment on them. Until inquiries and investigations are done, analyzing them is not easy. I heard the same news that you have about rallies and protests in several cities and what has been said. There are many possibilities. No doubt there are some who want to take advantage of people’s problems. On the other hand, people do have real problems.
People expect the authorities to come up with policies that benefit the nation, the poor, the downtrodden and the vulnerable. Some economic problems, like the rising prices of eggs, sugar, electricity and water, are real. But one cannot be quite sure whether these protests were really about rising prices or whether some are trying to exploit the situation.
Why can’t you be sure?
There is no doubt that people have demands. But when they chant slogans against the authorities it is a little suspicious. We must be aware. In 2009 [when there were mass protests], the excuse was the election, but it led to a series of demonstrations. So I am very cautious in talking about this because I do believe that people have problems and the authorities must work to solve them — but the slogans give you reason to pause. Sometimes people gather and ask why the prices are rising but some of the slogans they shouted were problematic.
So what do you say about the videos that have been circulated from the protests and the slogans people shouted out?
Friends showed me some of those pictures on their mobiles. Well, when a few hundred people gather somewhere you can take pictures in a way that makes sure they fill out the whole space. We have 80 million people here and what a few hundred say is not what the whole nation says. Nevertheless, I do believe that people’s problems in making a living must be taken care of.
Which slogan shocked you most?
Honoring the Shah of the tyrannical regime was shocking. The Shah fought against everything that is sacred in Islam and against hijab. Then they praised Reza Shah. A pious person would not chant slogans praising Reza Shah and [Mohammad Reza] Shah. If they only shouted about the high prices, unemployment and taking care of the downtrodden, then I would say, yes, this is what people want. But when they praise the Shah of the tyrannical regime — and everybody knows what he did to Islam and to people’s honor and faith — then it is not acceptable in our revolutionary and Islamic society, and seems suspicious.
Some claim that opponents of President Rouhani’s government, such as conservative groups and the Basij Organization, urged people to protest.
From what I know about the conservative principlists, they could not have done such a thing. I myself am a principlist from the clergy community. We have always said that we must talk logically and act logically. When the presidential election was held everybody accepted the results as they should have. And the Supreme Leader validated [the results] and guided us. After all, you cannot ignore people’s vote. But what happened does not agree with the way that either the principlists or the reformists are.
As I said before, some of it might be due to people’s complaints and some due to provocations from suspicious elements.
How should the government respond to these rallies?
We have the Supreme National Security Council. Our policies must spurn violence, and instead, they must explain. For example, the authorities must talk to the people through the media. In my view, the priority is for the authorities to use the national media and talk to people about events and problems. If we clarify things for the people they will understand. For example, they should tell the people that there have been protests, that the people have expressed their demands and then explain why they have taken the decisions that they have.
They must say that they hear the logical demands by the people and must not let cyberspace control the situation. In cyberspace, these things are exploited a lot. They must talk to people so that there can be no chance for suspicious elements to exploit cyberspace. It is very difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is not, so they must not let people online have control.
Do you mean that authorities should filter sites in order to ensure that coverage of events is not hijacked?
I am not talking about recent events. Even without recent events, cyberspace has become a platform for a lot of things that foreigners say, so it must be supervised and controlled. Of course, this is a difficult job. But since a lot of suspicious activities are going on there, it must be managed. But let’s not call it “filtering.” Let’s call it “management.” I believe it is necessary to manage it to prevent confusing the public mind and the propagation of what the foreigners say.