TEHRAN — Across Iran’s heartland, from the sweltering heat of its southern cities to the bustling capital, protesters have taken to the streets with increasing intensity in recent months, much to the satisfaction of the Trump administration, which is hoping the civil unrest will put pressure on Iranian leaders.
Some demonstrations — about the weak economy, strict Islamic rules, water shortages, religious disputes, local grievances — have turned deadly. The protesters have shouted harsh slogans against clerical leaders and their policies. The events are broadly shared on social media and on the dozens of Persian language satellite channels beaming into the Islamic republic.
On Thursday, protests were held in the cities of Arak, Isfahan, Karaj and Shiraz, as people — in numbers ranging in the hundreds, perhaps more — took to the streets, chanting slogans like “death to high prices,” but also criticizing top officials. A smaller protest was held in Tehran, where some people were arrested, according to videos taken at the scene.
In the city of Eshtehard, west of the capital, protesters attacked a religious school on Thursday, forcing 500 clerics in training to flee, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency reported.
Truck drivers who went on strike in May for higher wages restarted their strike last week. The strike has affected fuel deliveries, leaving some gasoline stations empty in parts of the country, including Caspian Sea areas north of Tehran.
Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost nearly 80 percent of its value compared to a year ago, weakened at least in part because the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement in May and restored American economic sanctions. The first batch of those restored sanctions is set to take effect on Monday.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who supported the nuclear agreement, is under fire not only from hard-liners but also from the Iranians who voted for him — the vast middle class. Both groups say his economic policies have failed.
The demonstrations began after a week of unprecedented nationwide protests in January. In more than 80 cities, including Tehran, people took to the streets with economic demands and calls for more freedoms. In total, 25 people were killed and more than 4,000 were arrested.
The protests over the past six months have been relatively isolated, sporadic, scattered and much smaller than the antigovernment demonstrations in 2009, when millions took to the streets. But they reflect a common theme of rising dissatisfaction, many say.
Activists critical of the government concede the demonstrations do not threaten Iran’s leadership. Security forces, mindful of the 2009 upheavals, are now much better equipped to crush any organized antigovernment demonstrations. The protesters share neither unifying leadership nor clear agenda.
While many members of the large middle class are unhappy, they mostly watch from the sidelines, adverse to uncertainty.
“There is no vision, no leadership, and the protests will not lead to any chain reaction across the country, at this point,” said Bahman Amoei, a well-known political activist who has spent several stints in jail for his activities.
“I have to admit that the state, its security and propaganda machine, is capable of engineering public opinion very successfully and persuade the wider populace that the status quo is in their favor and change will be too costly,” he said.
However, for the country of 80 million, long one of the calmest in the Middle East, the growing list of demonstrations and strikes is remarkable.
In July, brokers of Tehran’s vast bazaar marched across the city protesting high prices and clashing with security forces near the Parliament building. Protesters in the southern border city of Khorramshahr clashed with security forces for days over water shortages. Defying risk of arrest, women have protested the compulsory Islamic head scarf. In February, deadly clashes erupted between members of a religious minority and security forces. In March, protests over water shortages spread to Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city.
There also have been strikes, most notably in the Kurdish regions, where bazaars closed in April to protest restrictions on border trade. Truckers went on strike the following month. In the city of Kazeroun, two people were killed in clashes over plans to redraw its borders.
Videos show that some protesters have gone well beyond strictly economic grievances to challenge Iran’s foreign policy and religious rules. Secular protest slogans aimed at Iran’s leadership also criticize its support for Syria and groups in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon. Often protesters evoke the name of Reza Shah, an authoritarian who industrialized Iran at the beginning of the century, with a very firm hand. In Khorramshahr, videos showed protesters shouting: “You have plundered us in the name of religion.”
Because of travel restrictions placed on foreign reporters, it is hard to determine the scope of demonstrations and clashes around the country.
Interviews with protesters in Tehran suggest they are exasperated with what many view as the government’s economic incompetence and corruption. One said that he felt as if his life were shrinking by the day and simply could not take it anymore.
“We had been given bad news for days, our hearts were full of anger,” said the protester, Hassan Seyedi, a broker at the Alaedine electronics bazaar in Tehran.
In recent months, he and his colleagues spontaneously closed their shops and took to the streets, shouting slogans and clashing with the police. Other merchants closed their shops in solidarity. In front of the Parliament building, a crowd of hundreds shouted: “Death to freeloading bigwigs!”
“We filmed and took selfies; the second day we went out again,” Mr. Seyedi said. But now his was back in his small shop, where he pays a monthly rent of more than $3,100. “I can’t afford to protest too long,” he said. “I need to make any money I can.”
The protests have compounded the increasingly dire predicament that Iran’s leaders face as they prepare to deal with the restored American sanctions. Foreign investors are leaving the country, and the Iranian government, anticipating less oil income, has tightened the use of foreign currency. That move has accelerated the decline in the rial, driving anger that seems more aimed at Iran’s leaders than the United States.
Hard-liners have consistently played down the protests. “Around a hundred people take to the streets in cities populated by five million people,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a political analyst. He accused Iran’s enemies, most notably the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, of helping foreign based opposition groups. “Foreign powers are seeking to seize upon our economical problems and create unrest.”
Iran’s leaders are struggling to come up with new solutions to keep their country running. Instead, factional feuds are leading to daily accusations of corruption and decadence.
Last month a website linked to a former presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, alleged that Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a hero of the hard-liners, was part of a mafia importing cars. Hard-line news outlets criticized photographs of Mr. Rouhani wearing foreign brands. Beyond the accusations, no one seems to have a solution.
“There is incompetence on all levels,” said Hojjat Kalashi, a sociologist who has been banned from leaving the country because of his writings. “Our officials keep on hoping for some form of an international breakthrough, a deal that will solve everything, but in reality they have no strategy.”
At Tehran’s grand bazaar, things were back to normal after the protests and strike last month. In the gold trading area, one merchant, Mostafa Arabzadeh, admitted that he had also closed his shop. “To protect my valuables,” he said.
Mr. Arabzadeh said he disliked the protesters and felt they were playing into the hands of Iran’s enemies. “People that are angry forget we have one thing the rest of the region doesn’t have: peace and stability,” he said, adding, “We should cherish that.”
But many agreed that the protests and the strikes would continue in one form or another. “People are no longer afraid to show their dissatisfaction,” said Abolghasem Golbaf, a publisher.
When schools reopen after the summer break, Mr. Golbaf said, students and professors would very likely join the demonstrations, possibly presenting a new challenge to security forces. “People want their voices heard,” he said.
Orignially published in NYT.