On May 9 the firestorm of popular protests was reignited in Iran. The jump in the prices of bread, cooking oil, poultry and then several other basic commodities triggered protests first in cities in Khuzestan province, then in the provinces of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, Kermanshah, Lorestan and Ardebil.
Scattered videos posted on social media show protesters chanting slogans against President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In the city of Andimeshk, Khuzestan, there were unconfirmed reports that a young man named Omid Soltani had been killed. State-imposed internet shutdowns have made it harder to establish the scale of the protests or how security forces have responded to them. This is what we know so far.
How Did the Protests Start?
On Thursday, May 5, Iranian citizens woke up to news of yet another government-imposed commodities price increase. This time, however, it was not the price of meat, poultry, fruits or gasoline but of bread, the most basic, indispensable staple food in the country.
State-controlled news agencies, quoting various officials, tried to calm the situation by claiming the surge the price of flour would only affect macaroni and “upscale” breads like baguettes, but not regular or traditional breads, and the government would subsidize low-income families. This made little difference; bread prices at Iranian bakeries surged three- to five-fold in a matter of days.
The discontent was not only expressed by regime opponents but several MPs, the Student Basij Organization and even Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, a former intelligence officer and Minister of Communications, who personall warned Ebrahim Raisi that an “uprising of the hungry” was on its way.
Nevertheless, the government went ahead with further measures, increasing the prices of poultry, eggs, cooking oil and dairy products. Immediately thereafter, videos and pictures posted on social media showed long lines, shortages of food items and overcrowded supermarkets.
The government announced that it had deposited cash subsidies of 300,000 and 400,000 tomans ($10.5 and $14) into the accounts of qualifying people. But it also announced that subsidized prices would end in two months, regardless of the fact that the prices of most food items had already increased by 50 to 100 percent within the last year.
At least as early as May 9, street protests inevitably got under way on Iran's western border. Demonstrations began in Ahvaz and Susangerd, then spread to two other cities in Khuzestan, Izeh and Shush. Videos posted online show a heavy security presence.
M., an ethnic Arab resident of Kut Abdollah near Ahvaz, told IranWire on Friday: "Every 100 meters there's a Basij inspection point. Most of the security forces are Basijis but there are police and plainclothes officers among them as well. They are constantly patrolling, even in the villages.
“Shadegan [a nearby city] has no internet service but a guy over there told me that last night they fire to a seminary. Close to Mahshahr and Jarrahi, the government itself has set all the reed beds on fire. In the neighborhoods of Alavi, Abdollah, Shelangabad and Ghaleh Chenan, security forces have occupied every street. They're patrolling throughout the night so people cannot gather together anywhere.
"Last night in Ahvaz there were large protests just in the neighborhood of Shelangabad. There were a few gatherings in Elahieh and Shadegan too. Security forces blocked the roads and they were keeping people’s homes under surveillance with drone cameras until morning. So far we have not had large-scale arrests. Only a few people were arrested in Susangerd.”
In one video posted online, shots being fired at protesters in Izeh can be heard. “The video was made the night before last [May 11]," M. said. “Somebody who was there told me they took the wounded person to hospital, but the hospital refused to admit him. A nurse who was also an Arab had come there to help but the agents arrested the nurse as well."
He cautioned: "Unfortunately many of the videos of protests in Ahvaz are from last year. They're not allowing people to leave their homes. I think it's them [security forces] are posting videos from last year so that people will question the real ones from this year.” In summer 2021, people protests over water crisis broke out across Khuzestan and were violently dispersed, with eight to 12 people thought to have been killed.
On May 13, the “1500 Images” Instagram page, which has published news about protests since November 2019, reported that a young man of 21 had been killed by security forces in Andimeshk on May 12. His name has been reported variably as Omid Nouri or Omid Soltani.
Which Cities Have Joined the Protests?
After Khuzestan the protests spread to provinces of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, Lorestan, Kermanshah, Ardebil and Gilan. Slogans against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi have been heard in various cities including Dorud and Khorramabad in Lorestan, Borujerd, Jooneghan and Shahrekord in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, Ardebil, Rasht in Gilan and Kermanshah.
In a video posted in the evening of May 12, said to be of protests in Kermanshah, people are seen cheering as a picture of Khamenei is pulled down.
There were also reports of protests in the small town of Jooneghan and the village of Cholicheh in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari. It was reported that at 4am on May 13, security agents arrested the family of the dissident poet and civil rights activist Habib Fadaei. In Borujerd in Lorestan, protesters chanted "Mullahs get lost”.
Gunfire can be heard in several of the so-far posted videos. “They are shooting at the people,” says a person in Borujerd in one of them. In the late hours of Friday, May 13, there were tweets and retweets that reported a seminary in the city of Farsan in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari had been set on fire.
Crackdowns Will Make Things Worse
In recent state-endorsed political commentaries in Iran, the word “riot”, used by pro-regime elements to describe peaceful protests, is often preceded by the adjective “blind”. But Saeed Madani, a sociologist in Tehran, tells IranWire these sporadic movements are anything but. "As an observer, one can see the transformation from discontent to protests.
"The current situation is a continuation of the state of affairs in Iran in the past two decades. But the protests have consistently become more widespread, and the chants have become more radical. That is, if earlier the protests were against one administration, they are now against the whole political system.”
It is, he says, too early to know what the consequences of this fresh uprising will be. "How the ruling system reacts to protests plays an important role. If it retreats or reforms its policies, the consequences could be more limited.” If there are violent crackdowns, he said, "This will only lead to worse tensions.
"Like the protests in January 2018 and November 2019, these protests pose a serious challenge to the regime. Also, some members of the regime itself concede that these protests are important. They themselves concede that they have made life very difficult for people."
"We Have Only Just Begun"
On Friday night, a protester in Jooneghan who had agreed to speak with IranWire, sent us a short message on Twitter, saying that because of disruption to the internet he had connected to Twitter with difficulty and could not talk to us. In the same message, he reported that the security atmosphere in Jooneghan and other cities in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari was very tight and after the arrest of Habib Fadaei and others nade things “more complicated”.
A Basij base near the village of Cholicheh, he wrote, had been set on fire. "They are armed to the teeth but we are not afraid of anything and we have only just begun.”