Editorial, The Guardian: The cycle of protest and vicious repression is grimly familiar in the region. Iran’s five-day internet shutdown helped to ensure that we still know relatively little about this month’s events there. What we do know makes grim reading. Amnesty International says it has credible reports of at least 143 deaths since unrest broke out on 15 November, and that the true total is likely to be significantly higher. It details police firing on crowds and in some cases shooting protesters as they ran away. The regime itself boasts of having made 1,000 arrests; others suggest four times that many may have been detained.
These were widespread protests, reportedly reaching 70% of provinces. They appear to have been more in the mould of those seen in 2017 and 2018 – leaderless, economically driven, and drawing in poorer voters – rather than the more middle-class, urban and political “green movement” of 2009. According to the authorities, around 87,000 people took part, mostly unemployed young men.
The spark was the abrupt increase in petrol prices, of almost 300%. The government said it wanted to tackle fuel smuggling and give cash payments to the poorest three-quarters of Iran’s 80 million population. One problem is that the price hikes arrived first. Another is that, owing to official incompetence and corruption, many do not trust the authorities to deliver what they promise. A third is that in many cases the cash will not offset people’s increased fuel costs.
The broader context is the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and America’s choking of the Iranian economy, already suffering after decades of mismanagement. Inflation and unemployment have soared. The impact has not only been on the daily struggle of Iranians to get by, but also, perhaps as critically, upon their morale: the US abandonment of the JCPOA dashed many people’s last hope. The optimism and energy that surged when Hassan Rouhani signed the agreement has vanished. The Trump administration’s actions have discredited the president and other reformists.
Iranians are unlikely to see significant improvements in their dire economic conditions unless this international context changes. The E3 – France, Germany and the UK – should continue their attempts to facilitate negotiations, however hopeless that task may seem. In the absence of progress, there is the real danger that Iran will provoke a regional crisis to draw international attention again.
Tehran will have been well prepared for these protests, given the unrest of the last two years and its role in Lebanon and Iraq, also gripped by demonstrations. Yet more dissent will surely come. Accusing the US, Britain and others of stoking unrest, as the regime has done, will do nothing to persuade people that their dissatisfaction is being addressed. Brutal crackdowns fuel their grievances.
Cartoon by Mohammad Sabaaneh