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Iranian Protests Raising More Questions than Answers


In this Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017 file photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend a protest inside Tehran University while anti-riot Iranian police prevent them to join o

Anti-government protests continued across multiple cities in Iran for a fourth day on Sunday, creating more questions than answers.

It all began at a relatively small protest this past Thursday in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city, and the main base for the opponents of moderate president Hassan Rouhani. This protest quickly became the driving force behind a wave of spontaneous protests spreading across provinces.

"Death to Rouhani" were the dominant chants in Mashhad before the situation got out of control, with people chanting anti-regime slogans such as " Death to the dictator," denouncing the leadership of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Within a day, the protests spread to Kermanshah, in the West; Isfahan, in the center; Rasht in the North, as well as other cities such as Qom, Sari and Hamedan. By Saturday, the protests grew even larger, with anti-regime demonstrations held in Tehran and dozens of other cities.

Timeline of Unrest in Iran

Timeline of Unrest in Iran

2013

June — Cleric Hassan Rouhani becomes president.

September — Rouhani tells U.S. news channel NBC that Iran will not build any nuclear weapons. He offers "time-bound and result-oriented" talks on the nuclear issue during a speech at the United Nations.

November — Iran agrees to stop all uranium enrichment above 5 percent and allow U.N. inspectors access to its nuclear facilities. In return, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S. Britain, Russia, China and France — in addition to Germany, agree to lift $7 billion of economic sanctions.

2014

April — The International Atomic Energy Agency confirms Iran has neutralized 50 percent of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium.

2015

July — Iran and the P5+1 reach a final deal on curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting international economic sanctions.

2016

January — Economic sanctions on Iran are lifted.

December — Economic sanctions remain lifted, though the U.S. Senate extends the Iran Sanctions Act, which penalizes U.S. companies for doing business with Tehran.

2017

May — Rouhani is re-elected president.

Dec. 28 — Protests erupt in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city. Small rallies are held in smaller cities nearby. In addition to demanding economic reform, protesters shout "Death to Rouhani." "Death to the dictator."

Dec. 29 — Protests spread to larger cities, including Qom, Isfahan and Zahedan. A few people are arrested in Tehran where smaller rallies are taking place.

Dec. 30 — Two protesters are killed in western Iran. At least 200 people are arrested in Tehran, but information on the number of people arrested around the country is unavailable. Videos posted on social media show unprecedented images of protesters taking down banners and posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Internet access is shut down in many parts of the country.

Dec. 31 — Rouhani acknowledges the protests. U.S. President Donald Trump tweets support for the protesters and warns that the world was watching.

Compared with 2009, the new protests also appear to lack any specific organization behind them, which many see as an advantage because the state cannot easily crack,down on them by arresting a leader. But others see it as a disadvantage because they don't have a clear strategy on how to damp down the protests.

The protests after the country's 2009 elections were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and voters demanded the votes be recounted. The protests had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who gave the movement much-needed organization.

The current protests appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days.

Iran's economy has improved since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, in which Iran limited its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some international sanctions. Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars' worth of Western aircraft.

Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017. Iranian hard-liners rallied Saturday to support the country's supreme leader and clerically overseen government as spontaneous protests sparked by anger over the country's ailing economy.
Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017. Iranian hard-liners rallied Saturday to support the country's supreme leader and clerically overseen government as spontaneous protests sparked by anger over the country's ailing economy.

But that improvement has not reached the average Iranian. Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 percent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 percent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the economic protests.

Protests have increased in frequency and intensity over past few months because of economic change — prices going up, inflation, banks under pressure, people worried about deposits disappearing, according to Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

"Rouhani, I think this is a wake-up call for him. Rouhani really has taken the people who voted for him for granted. Nobody really genuinely thought he was a reformist but hoped that he would at least take certain steps to move in that direction. He's done none of it," Vatanka said. "In fact, since his re-election in May, he's turned toward the right. That has just infuriated those reformists who sort of bought the idea that gradual reform in the Islamic Republic is possible."

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But senior Iran analyst for the Foundation for Defense and Democracies, Behnam Ben Taleblu, tells VOA he believes the protesters are using anger about the economy as a way to express general grievances over the government.

"What is true is that the Iranian people want accountability, respect, justice. And they want their government to put their interests — national interests — ahead of the narrow, factional or regime interests," Benham said.

He also said many Iranians are angered over what they believe is pointless intervention in regional affairs.

"The average Iranian is looking at the political fights it's picking in the region and saying 'why do we need that?' And they're worried about their basic lot in life — and coming to the reality that this government cannot deliver. That's why you heard slogans like 'Not Gaza, Not Lebanon. My life for Iran.'"

Social media

In a tightly controlled media environment, much of the information about the demonstrations has emerged via social media, and platforms like Telegram and Instagram have been used extensively by protesters.

Telegram in particular is very popular in Iran, with more than 50 percent of the country's 80 million population said to be active on the app.

The company's CEO, Pavel Durov, tweeted that Iranian authorities took action after his company refused to shut down "peacefully protesting channels."

Tehran claimed that social media censorship was necessary to maintain public safety.

Earlier on Sunday, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said the misuse of social networks by some individuals was "causing violence and fear," and that "such behavior will be smashed," according to IRNA.

Social media played a vital resource for Iranians participating in the 2009 protests, but some analysts say it is too early to know the power of social media this time around.

"The role of social media is certainly a concern to the authorities, but we don't really know what exact contributing factor it was, in terms of that mobilization. I would say it's a factor, but it's too early to say how big of a role it played," the Middle East Institute's Vatanka said.

In an exclusive interview with VOA Persian on Sunday, Michael Anton, deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications, said there is not much Washington can do about Iran's social media clampdown. But he said the Trump administration expects the U.S. and other western companies to halt any concessions to the Iranian government. "(They should) not bow to any demands for censorship or curtailment of information," Anton said. "(They should) continue doing business the way they always have, and let information flow freely into Iran."

He added that U.S. officials will be watching how those companies handle the issue.

The question now is how the Rouhani administration will handle the protests and whether his approach would be any different to the brutality seen under his predecessor in 2009.

"The world is watching," U.S. president, Donald Trump tweeted.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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