The protests that started on Thursday 28 in Mashhad have since spread to Nishapur, Rasht, Sari, the holy city of Qom, Isfahan, Bandar Abbas, Ahvaz and close to 20 cities and provincial capitals across Iran. Since 2009 and the disputed presidential election of that year, December 30 has been marked by pro-regime rallies against protesters who challenged the official results of the election that secured a second term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But this year pro-government rallies were overshadowed by anti-government protests.
Police and anti-riot units lined up the streets to confront the demonstrators with water cannons, batons, Tasers and tear gas. According to the latest official reports, more than 10 people have lost their lives.
On Saturday, December 30, protests in the capital started at Tehran University and shortly afterward, protesters were confronted with anti-riot police. Once again tear gas filled the streets of Tehran and other cities. The voices of protesters have be heard from towns and cities that have seldom been in the news, if at all.
Ammar Maleki is an assistant professor in comparative politics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “Even if the demonstrations were started by the conservatives to damage Rouhani’s government,” he says, “it is no longer under their control. What we are witnessing today goes far beyond its starting point.”
There are many who believe that the original protests were the work of conservatives who dominate Mashhad, one of the holiest towns in Shia Islam. The city is considered the powerbase of Ebrahim Raeesi, the ultra-conservative candidate who ran against Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election and lost. Raeesi is the custodian of Astan Qods Razavi, the largest religious endowment in Iran, and the son-in-law of Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative in Mashhad, Ahmad Alamolhoda.
From Protest Voters to Streets Protesters
But Ammar Maleki believes that the 2015 elections for the Assembly of Experts — a body with the power to appoint or dismiss the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic — showed signs of popular discontent that observers missed at the time. “It was announced that 62 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in that election,” says Maleki, “but 10 percent of voters [in Mashhad} cast invalid votes and this must be considered a kind of protest. So we cannot say with absolute certainty that the city of Mashhad and the province are Raeesi’s undisputed powerbase and all people there are his supporters.”
He holds a similar view about Qom, the base of Shia clergy in the country that is often called “Iran’s Vatican.”
During the protests in Qom, demonstrators shouted slogans condemning the rule of mullahs and praising the former monarchy.
“We would be ignoring real demands of various sectors of the population if we say that the protests were just the handiwork of the conservatives,” he says. “We can see signs of protests even if we simply analyze the voting patterns in the elections.” Maleki points out that in the election for the Assembly of Experts in Qom, 20 percent of voters cast invalid or protest ballots. “We can see the results today as protesters there are chanting extremely radical slogans,” he says.
These Are Not the Reformists’ Slogans
Maleki believes that the reformists have been unhappy with recent protests because the slogans have been different from those of the Green Movement, which grew out of protests against the official results of the 2009 presidential election.
“The Green Movement emerged from an election, from inside the system itself,” says Maleki. “Even until recently, whenever there were protests and demonstrations, one the most important slogans was in support of Mir Hossein Mousavi [the reformist presidential candidate who has been under house arrest for years] and this slogan was welcomed by the reformists. Even if a few “Death to the dictator!” slogans were chanted, the reformists could connect the slogans in support of Mousavi to their own voter base.”
But Maleki says the recent protest chants are different. “You cannot hear any of the reformists’ favorite slogans,” he says. “Instead, what is chanted are radical slogans like ‘Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon; my life for Iran,’ or ‘Independence, freedom, Iranian Republic.’ These slogans are aimed at both the system itself and at the Supreme Leader. Taken together, they show that the nature of people’s protests and demands have changed radically.”
Maleki says this means the reformists have not put their support behind the protests. “The reformists not only have given no support to the protests, they have even condemned them or consider them a conspiracy by their conservative rivals. Of course, the usual practice of the Islamic Republic has always been to accuse protesters of being enemies of the regime, like the People’s Mojahedin Organization or the monarchists.”
Pleasantries Instead of Honesty
Over the last few days some statesmen, such as First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri and Mahmoud Sadeghi, a vocal reformist member of the parliament, have declared that people have a right to peaceful demonstrations. And some officials have asked the Interior Ministry to issue permits for protest rallies — if, of course, the demonstrators ask for them. But Ammar Maleki dismisses this alleged support for protest rights as mere pleasantries. “Unfortunately,” he says, “we can see that a government that was associated with reformists and moderates has now joined the conservatives and the authoritarians. With its promises, it was expected that this government would show some empathy with the people and recognize their rights based on its own Charter of Citizen’s rights. But Rouhani’s government has proven that it is not honest and in most cases it has acted contrary to its promises.”
In the last few days analysts have criticized the nationwide protests for lacking leadership and a clear strategy. “It is true that the protests lack leadership, that it is not quite clear what people exactly want and that it might lead to anarchy,” Maleki says. “But what we see today is an expression of silenced and dormant voices of people who were not allowed to express themselves. Revolutions in Arab countries were also protests without leadership, even though, for instance, in Tunisia and Egypt there were entities that tried to organize people. In many cases in autocratic countries, when social and protest movements take shape, leaders emerge from within the movement and the demands gradually become more specific.”
The Necessity of a Structural Change
In previous elections, says Maleki, those who wanted change but felt no loyalty or attachment to the Islamic Republic and its factions, have not been allowed to field candidates or put forward their demands. “The record of reformists and moderates in power has shown that they either cannot or would not represent or pursue demands by a large section of Iranian society. This is why a structural change is needed,” Maleki says.
He believes that even if the current protests are suppressed, people’s demands will persist and emerge again in the coming years. “If real and structural reforms do not take place, this kind of nationwide protests will eventually challenge the system,” he says. “We cannot predict that these protests would lead to fundamental changes or the downfall of the regime because the regime might suppress them forcefully. But what is certain is that these nationwide protests are a significant historical event in the life of the Islamic Republic.”