“Down with Khamenei”, “Down with Raisi”, “The Mullahs Must Go Away”, “Down with Welayat-e Faqih (the Iranian theocratic system of government – Red.)” were some of the slogans chanted by residents in many Iranian cities in recent weeks. The protests against the sharp rise in the price of food, especially bread, began in the province of Khuzestan in south-western Iran and spread quickly in other parts of the country.These slogans indicate the radical political direction in which some of the protests were taking.News of the spread was often delayed, due to disruptions to the internet and mobile networks allegedly caused by the authorities.
In contrast to the protests in 2019, this time it was more the residents of smaller towns who took to the streets. These include the heavily religious town of Golpayegan with around 90,000 inhabitants in the province of Isfahan. A resident told DW: “Calling ‘Death to the mullahs’ and ‘The mullahs must go away’ here in this city is almost like doing the same thing in Qom, the stronghold of the ayatollahs. It shows how angry the people are on this government.” Between 2,000 and 3,000 people took part in the latest demonstration, a very high number given the prevailing conservative attitude. “Even though the demonstrators knew that they could be easily identified in the city’s relatively small society, they took to the streets.”
Another resident told DW: “Last Wednesday evening the streets were full of people, many gathered in one of the central squares. The police asked people over loudspeakers to go home. But they moved towards the main street and it were increasing. The Basij volunteer militia arrested several people. The next day the news came that about 60 people had been arrested. Apparently they were taken to Isfahan. In the evening there was a strong presence of police, Revolutionary Guards, volunteer militia and Army. Then a counter-demonstration began: About 200 people, including many mullahs and their wives, demonstrated for the government. Military patrols were on the streets until morning. This picture lasted for several days and nights.”
So far there is no reliable information about the number of people arrested and possible injuries or deaths in the protests of the past two weeks. The government described the protests as “small gatherings” and “dozens of rioters and inciters” were arrested at the same time. Officially, “enemy foreigners” were blamed for the unrest, and pro-government demonstrations were shown on state television, with shouts of “death to Israel” and “death to America.”
Reform measure hits the poor
Mehrdad Jahangiri, a journalist from Tehran, explains why the current wave of protests has mainly spread to smaller towns: “Unemployment is particularly high in small towns. Any price increase can quickly become unbearable for the residents. The main problem for them is the supply with everyday things like bread, oil, milk and grain.” In contrast, the all-dominant problem of city dwellers is the housing shortage and the increase in living space prices. “For someone who lives in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad or even in medium-sized cities, the main problem is the apartment rent. The fact that the price of a liter of cooking oil has risen from 15,000 tomans (currently just under 50 euro cents) to 50,000 falls in comparison doesn’t matter that much.”
As a result of what was officially called a “necessary economic operation,” the prices of staple foods have doubled to tripled overnight, most notably bread, dairy, eggs, poultry and cooking oil. During the reign of President Rouhani and as a result of US sanctions, food imports were heavily subsidized using a kind of parallel currency with a lower exchange rate for the US dollar than the real one. This primarily secured the import of wheat, barley, corn, soybean meal, oilseeds, crude oil, medicines and medical equipment. However, the system was also an ideal breeding ground for corruption and has now been abolished under Rouhani’s successor, Raisi. According to the state news agency ISNA, this saves the government between nine and eleven billion US dollars a year.
Resistance remains diffuse
According to Mehrdad Dschahangiri, the government has now managed to “calm down” in the short term by promising the poorer families 400,000 tomans of direct aid per capita and month, the equivalent of around 13 euros. “Not an inconsiderable amount for a family of five in a small town,” the journalist notes. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the big cities tried to adapt to the current economic situation. He therefore does not expect any major protests in the big cities, at least for the time being, mainly due to the lack of leadership and organization of the resistance.
Mohammad Mohebi, a political observer in Iran, notes that the current protests are increasingly showing a desire for the “good old Shah days”. According to his analysis, the protests this time are particularly political and subversive, “because the Islamic Republic is less able than ever before to respond to people’s demands. Many want to go back to the pre-revolutionary era, when the country was on a seemingly predetermined path way of development.”