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Iran Protests: Uprising Of The Poor And Underprivileged?

Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019.
Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019.

Unlike the politically motivated, middle class protests following Iran's disputed 2009 election, the protests sparked by a steep hike in fuel prices in the past few days engulfed many towns and townships as well as areas in the vicinity of larger cities where around 11 million poor Iranians live without access to many urban amenities.

Protests sparked by a steep hike in the price of gasoline in Iran that started November 15 have left a trail of destruction in some of these deprived areas where public facilities such as banks and ATMs, government offices, gas stations, buses and ambulances were set on fire and destroyed. According to Iranian officials more than 80 chain supermarkets and stores were looted in the past few days, causing millions in damages to these businesses.

Less than two years ago many Iranian cities and towns witnessed similar but less harshly suppressed, economically motivated protests that quickly turned against the regime itself. Frequent and extensive unrest such as the events of the past few days and the December 2017-January 2018 unrest, seriously damage the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic which has always called the 1979 Revolution the "Revolution of the Barefeet" and promised to eradicate poverty. More than 2.1 million Iranian families survive on benefits and at least one third of 82 million Iranians live under the poverty line.

The slogans chanted in the recent protests were against the hike in the price of gasoline and inflation or against the authorities, including Khamenei, Rouhani and the clerical establishment as a whole. These protests were not in favor or against one of the country's two main reformist/moderate and hardline/conservative factions, like the protests following the disputed election of 2009. In some places protesters set billboards with Khamenei's pictures on fire.

These protests can be compared more to the riots in the slums of Mashhad in 1992 and in Eslamshahr township near Tehran in 1995 when President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's economic reforms resulted in an inflation rate of nearly 50%. Currently the inflation rate has passed the 40% mark as a result of U.S. sanctions and the depreciation of the national currency. These protests are also different from the protests of 2009 in that they are spontaneous and lack leadership.

A billboard with a big picture of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has been set on fire in the recent protests in Iran.
A billboard with a big picture of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has been set on fire in the recent protests in Iran.

In recent days the Iranian state television has repeatedly shown footage of destroyed banks, looted supermarkets and other public and private properties, calling the protesters "rioters" and "thugs". On Thursday Sobh-e No, a hardliner newspaper, claimed that "agitators who were led by hostile groups in foreign countries diverted the course of the peaceful demonstrations" and destroyed public and private properties. On Monday Asr-e Iran website had reported that many ordinary citizens who had not even participated in the protests had taken part in the looting of chain stores.

"The manner of operation of the violent core shows that these people were highly trained and had been expecting and prepared for such an opportunity, unlike many citizens who were taken by surprise when the price of gasoline suddenly went up, the hardliner Fars News Agency claimed on November 17 and said that the "scope of the violence and destruction by rioters was higher and more damaging than the protests of February 2017."

However, protesters and dissidents have refuted these allegations and claimed that the destruction and looting were carried out by the agents of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and plainclothes agents to justify the great violence against the protesters. More than 100 protesters have been killed in the past few days.

The IRGC and its Basij paramilitary affiliate often carry out "urban maneuvers" in larger cities to prepare for supressing protests.

Some Iranian media and political figures have warned in recent days about dissatisfaction among people who are increasingly feeling poorer. "The rise in the price of gasoline was only an excuse for the eruption of people's accumulated anger," a commentary in Asr-e Iran said.

The commentary added that "the people are protesting against corruption, political and economic discrimination, bad management, unemployment, the country's disrupted relations with the rest of the world, devaluation of the national currency, instability of laws and rising prices". Itwarned the authorities that "even if the increase in the price of gasoline is reversed today and it becomes even cheaper than before the dissatisfaction will remain and await another chance to manifest itself."

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda
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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.