Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam dwells on a consistent difficulty in Iran
The recurrence of street protests in Iran is considered a malaise that has deep roots and even deeper causes. This phenomenon is considered as reflective of a probable disconnect between the people of the country and their ruling apparatus. In all such occurrences the causes cited are of primarily socio-economic origin and the central issue of governance is ignored. The current clerical regime is holding out in Iran since 1979 and it has brought about intense isolation to the country that was once considered one of the most modern countries of its region. It is quite surprising to observe that the type of regime that controls Iran has been in power for such a long time whereas it hardly equates with the general temperament of the culturally advanced Iranian culture. This crucial discrepancy is highlighted in many studies about Iran with observers providing conflicting opinions further complicating the issue.
However, the recent protests in several Iranian cities were sparked by the soaring costs of food and other staples have underscored the challenges facing Iran’s government from global shortages caused by war in Ukraine and the continued imposition of Western sanctions as talks to restore a 2015 nuclear deal remain stalled. In several places, the protests quickly took a political turn with Iranians chanting slogans against President Ebrahim Raisi and even the country’s highest authority and supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As reported by human rights activists and social media portals, a violent crackdown by the authorities on the protests resulted in at least five deaths and scores of arrests. These reports are verified by videos posted online showing protesters scrambling through streets while taking fire from security forces and being tear-gassed.
The hikes in prices resulted when the government cut subsidies for eggs, chicken, dairy products and cooking oil. Earlier, an increase in the price of bread was caused by government adjustments to wheat prices but it is also linked to its worldwide shortage because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that is the large source of wheat production. The Iranian government had hoped that negotiations to revive the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal would lead to the removal of one source of economic hardship namely Western sanctions that were re-imposed on Tehran after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018. In addition to the sanctions, though, many Iranians blame government corruption and ineptitude for a growing litany of woes, including high inflation.
In this context it is frequently pointed out that the current unrest recalls waves of protests that broke out in recent years, including in 2019, when demonstrations were sparked by fuel price increases. The human rights groups then claimed that hundreds were killed and thousands of people were arrested in dozens of cities. The latest protests have been smaller in size and focused in heavily impoverished areas, including the Khuzestan province in southwest Iran, a frequent site of popular discontent. Exacerbating the situation was the teacher’s strike that are protesting for months to demand an increase in wages, amid complaints that educators work two or three jobs to get by. Security forces arrested at least 14 teachers at protests and senior politicians have warned in recent months that the government could face a backlash because of the increasingly dire economic crisis.
It is reported that a return to the nuclear deal would lead to the removal of many sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme. Talks in Vienna earlier this year between all the signatories to the deal, as well as the United States, stalled in March due to an Iranian demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the strongest military force in the country and widely considered as the mainstay of the clerical regime, be removed from the US list of terrorist organisations. The Biden administration has not replied to the demand but Israel’s prime minister, in messages posted on Twitter, said Biden had confirmed to him in a telephone call late last month that he would keep the IRGC on the list which is where it belongs.
The European Union’s coordinator for the Iran nuclear deal negotiations visited Tehran in an attempt to restart the nuclear talks but Iran’s leaders may have already reached the conclusion that the deal is out of reach. It was therefore mentioned that the recent moves of the Iranian government send a very clear message that they have lost hope in the nuclear deal or simply do not want to enact it referring to the subsidy cuts adding that with these economic reforms they are sending the message that they do not depend on the deal anymore. The impression has deepened when the United States also expressed pessimism terming the deal as best as tenuous.
It is also reported that even if the nuclear deal is restored, Iran, like many other countries, is likely to suffer from the global wheat shortage as the issue of wheat is tied to issues of food security, international security and the crisis in Ukraine and with the current estimates, it appears that it may be a tough winter in terms of supplying foodstuffs. Ordinary Iranians are already feeling the pinch as the prices of milk and eggs have skyrocketed and people can ill-afford them. It is ironical to mention that grocery stores are not necessarily benefiting from the price hikes as they are also complaining that their business has dropped by half since the government slashed the subsidies. It is quite apparent that nobody is buying groceries. The grocers are emphasising that the prices are required to be brought down otherwise any stores will have no option but to close down.
The authorities are getting jittery by the day as was witnessed by security forces appearing to open fire on a crowd of protesters with other videos posted on social media showing a plainclothes security officer dragging a protester off the top of a car amid the sounds of gunshots and screams. The most significant feature of the protest was the chants of the protestors against the ruling clique with slogans of “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to Raisi” widely heard in the protests. Many videos posted on social media in the past two weeks show the heavy presence of security forces in full riot gear in numerous cities, including Tehran. Along with deploying security forces, the Iranian government has also tried to curb the spread of videos and information about the protests by slowing down the Internet.
The government is clearly worried that the government will give financial support to low-income families to offset the recent price increases but officials have also not ruled out raising prices on other goods. At a gathering in Tehran focused on privatisation President Raisi said that the government will be taking some tough decisions without providing further details. Many observers try to downplay these protests and frustrations are not unexpected at all but in fact the deterioration in situation is a culmination of an economic collapse and a complete loss of faith in the political system. There is lot of truth in the opinion expressed by many observers that Iran has become exceedingly volatile and its people are crying for change which they think is overdue. TW