Iran’s state-run media broadcast images from what it described Wednesday as pro-government rallies around the country as authorities seek to quell the most serious wave of street protests in nearly a decade.
The marches in support of the Iran’s leadership had the hallmarks of previous state-organized gatherings with crowds waving Iranians flags and holding placards with slogans backing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other pillars of the regime.
The rallies appeared aimed at sending dual messages. It served as another warning that authorities could push back harder against further anti-government protests after a week of clashes that have left more than 20 people dead.
It also was a clear attempt by Iran’s leaders to project a unified front to international audiences. The pro-government rallies were featured prominently on the English-language Press TV, which is one of the main international outlets for Iran’s ruling establishment.
A week of unrest brought no cracks in Iran’s leadership and appeared unlikely to pose any immediate risks to Khamenei or others. Still, it highlighted economic and social fissures in Iran that pose major challenges for the ruling clerics and their defenders.
What began last week as an expression of frustration over Iran’s sluggish economy has broadened to include open defiance of the Islamic leadership itself. The undercurrent for all the rage, however, is fed by long-standing tensions over the country’s priorities.
Many young Iranians — among the most educated and tech-savvy in the region — remain frustrated by largely unfulfilled promises by reformist President Hassan Rouhani for greater political openness and wider contacts with the West.
Others complain that one of the world’s most energy-rich nations remains burdened with high unemployment, inflation and an economy still largely directed by the ruling establishment.
The questions over the economic doldrums grew even stronger among many Iranians after the nuclear deal with world powers that lifted international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. The landmark pact opened the way for major deals with European automakers and others, but the benefits have not widely trickled down through Iran’s economy.
The demonstrations marked the most direct defiance of Iran’s leaders since massive street protests in Tehran and elsewhere after the presidential election in 2009 — whose results handed victory to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reform-leaning rivals.
The current protests, however, have flared in smaller provincial areas that are traditionally conservative strongholds for the regime.
The protesters “are angry, and they’re mobilized. I think it poses a problem for the regime in terms of its ability to respond to the geographic spread of these protests,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Denver University.
In his first remarks on the unrest, Khamenei posted comments on his official website Tuesday saying the protests were encouraged by the country’s “enemies” — often used as shorthand for the United States, their allies and anti-government Iranian exiles.
“In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic,” said the statement from Khamenei.
He made no comment on how security forces should confront the demonstrations, saying only that he will address the nation “when the time is right.” But other top officials have called for a harsher security response. Khamenei’s claim of outside involvement in the protests suggested that he viewed the events as more than a domestic upheaval, and his assertion could presage much tougher measures.
In Washington, the Trump administration accused Iranian authorities of blocking electronic communications used by demonstrators and signaled that it might press for new sanctions against Iran because of human rights abuses.
The unrest that began Thursday in the northern city of Mashhad was triggered by sharp price increases and other economic troubles. These pressures at home come as Iran has been pursuing an assertive policy abroad, including armed campaigns in Syria and Iraq.
“I’ve been out of work for months,” Rahim Guravand, a 34-year-old construction worker in Tehran, told the Associated Press. “Who is accountable for this? The government should stop spending money on unnecessary things in Syria, Iraq and other places and allocate it for creating jobs here.”
He warned that economic difficulties were making people desperate but not necessarily violent.
“If authorities do not fight protesters, then they will have peaceful protests,” Guravand said.
“They are right. Corruption is high, and opportunities are given to their own friends,” Mohammadi said, referring to government officials. “I have two sons, 27 and 30, at home without jobs years after graduation.”
Source: Washington Post