RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
Sporadic street clashes and other protests have hit major cities in Iran since late July as Iranians express anger over economic woes that include rising prices and a sustained fall in the value of Iran's national currency.
The extent and seriousness of protests in Iran can be difficult to gauge, with tight controls on newsgathering and the publication of information regarded as subversive or even critical of the religious establishment that has run the country since the 1979 revolution.
But media in Iran have reported that at least one protester was killed in the city of Karaj, about 50 kilometers west of Tehran, allegedly when someone fired a gun from a passing car.
Meanwhile images and other reports continue to emerge, and Iranian concerns were likely to be heightened as the rial continued to languish against foreign currencies and with news that the United States would reimpose significant sanctions on Iran following President Donald Trump's abandonment earlier this year of the nuclear deal from 2015 that eased international sanctions in exchange for controls on Tehran's nuclear activities.
Where have protests broken out?
Street unrest over the economy last broke out in December-January and spread to more than 80 cities and towns.
So far, these protests are a lot less widespread than those, but they also only began about a week ago.
In all, media reports and online videos indicate protests in about a dozen cities since the start of August, most of them near the capital, Tehran. But they already involve some other major population centers, including sizable provincial capitals like Mashhad in the northeast, Isfahan in central Iran, and Shiraz slightly farther south. Apart from those, they include: Karaj, the capital of Alborz Province; nearby Eshtehard; Qazvin, the capital of Qazvin Province; Arak, the capital of Markazi Province; Shahin Shahr, near Isfahan; Sari, the capital of Mazandaran Province; and Qom, capital of Qom Province.
How many people are protesting?
Iranian authorities try to keep a tight grip on flows of information, particularly via state-dominated media but also through filters and other means of blocking social media, mobile phones, and other digital tools. So reliable numbers are impossible to find.
But these protests have appeared to be small, involving between a few dozen and several hundred people, mostly men but also women.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the protesters are expressing discontent over economic problems, with chants quickly turning political and targeting the Iranian clerical establishment.
And the stakes appeared to rise after reports in Iran said one protester had been killed in the city of Karaj, about 50 kilometers west of Tehran, when someone fired a gun from a passing car.
What are protesters saying?
The protesters have chanted slogans against the country’s poorly performing economy and other economic factors, as well the political system and Iran's leadership, which many appear to be blaming for their economic problems.
They have been also critical of Tehran’s financial support for foreign groups like Hamas and Hizballah at a time when Iranians face increased poverty and diminishing purchase power. Those complaints arose during the December-January unrest, too.
Protesters also appear in at least some cases to be expressing nostalgia for the Pahlavi dynasty, under which some people enjoyed greater economic and social freedoms.
Chants so far, based on videos sent to RFE/RL's Radio Farda or posted online by other reliable sources, include:
“Death to high prices and inflation.”
“We don’t want incompetent officials.”
“Not to Gaza, not to Lebanon. May my life be sacrificed for Iran.”
“Death to the dictator.”
“Our enemy is right here. They lie when they say it’s America.”
"Reza Shah, bless your soul.”
“Iranians, shout out your demands.”
"Police forces, support [us], support [us].”
“Death to Hizballah.”
“Iranians die, [but] they don’t accept abjection.”
“Death to Khamenei.”
“Mullahs must get lost.”
“Don’t be scared, we’re all together.”
How have Iranian officials reacted to the protests?
The report of a protester death could speak volumes in Iran -- even if just to reinforce the notion that authorities remain willing to take serious action against those who take to the streets.
But officially, senior establishment Iranians including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani have been largely silent about the protests.
Last week, Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli appeared to play down the situation while suggesting that protesters were being incited by Iran’s foreign enemies -- a familiar refrain from Tehran.
“Creating social unrest is one of the [ways] that enemies confront Iran and think they can have an impact,” Fazli said. “They think that when 50 to 200 people gather in one place, the country’s domestic situation will be disrupted.”
Meanwhile, eyewitness accounts and some reports suggest security forces have used force -- including tear gas -- to disperse protesters. There have been also reports of arrests, although their numbers are still anyone's guess.
A protester in Shahin Shahr said that security forces targeted protesters with paintball guns, possibly to avoid serious violence while marking such people for later identification and punishment.
“They were on motorbikes, using paintball guns regardless of whether they were hitting women, children, or the elderly,” told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. “The only [thing] we did was to cover our heads so that they didn’t get hit."
A man identified as Reza, from Karaj’s city of Gohardasht, reportedly told BBC's Persian Service that security forces beat some protesters with batons and sticks. He also said that authorities used chemical spray.
“They attacked my wife; they were beating her. I went to stop them [and] they beat me up, too. They would use special batons that were very heavy but soft; later they would use sticks," he said. “They also used pepper gas -- I’m not sure if they used it only against us or others as well. It crippled us, we couldn’t see anything.”
Do the protests pose a significant challenge to Iran’s clerical establishment?
Some observers believe that the current protests are a continuation of the anger and protests that affected dozens of cities in January and December in Iran's most significant unrest in nearly a decade.
In recent weeks, Iranians have also protested over water shortages and pollution.
For now, many analysts suggest these protests don’t pose a serious challenge to the establishment. But if a larger number of people join the demonstrations, including from Iran's middle class, which for now appears to have stayed away, things could change.
“There is no vision, no leadership, and the protests will not lead to any chain reaction across the country, at this point,” Bahman Amoei, a political activist and former prisoner in Iran, told The New York Times. "I have to admit that the state, its security and propaganda machine, is capable of engineering public opinion very successfully and persuad[ing] the wider populace that the status quo is in their favor and change will be too costly."
Former lawmaker and law professor Ghasem Sholeh Saadi predicted to RFE/RL that the protests would continue.
“Authorities can’t rein in this movement, because the political and economic reasons and motivations of the people for the protests cannot be addressed by the establishment," Sholeh Saadi said.
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