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Opinion

January 5, 2018

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Iran and dissent

Iran and dissent

Thousands of students, unemployed youth and ordinary people have come out on the streets of Iran to protest price hikes, unemployment and social and political repression. The protests are about to enter their second week as state repression and violence failed to stop protesters from coming onto the streets. These ordinary people are protesting the sudden surge in food prices and the dwindling living standards. While official food inflation is said to be around 14 percent, real statistics suggest it is 20 percent. The sudden 40 percent rise in the prices of eggs and poultry has caused anger and frustration.

People feel they have been betrayed by the ruling theocracyThey had once hoped that growth in the economy would improve their lives, but that never happened. After the US-Iran nuclear deal, the Iranian economy did improve but the material conditions for the people either worsened or remained the same. Continued social and political repression has fuelled anger and discontent among the educated youth, with protesters blaming the ruling class for their current condition.

The unemployed youth is protesting against the non-availability of decent jobs, while students are protesting a possible bleak future. Although the unemployment rate is said to stand at 12.60 percent, the majority of independent experts have estimated it to be around 20 percent. What is more troubling is the youth unemployment rate which many believe is more than 30 percent. Millions have been unsuccessful in looking for decent paying jobs. Around 4.5 million university graduates will enter the job market over the next couple of years in need of jobs that are not there. The labour market is already overcrowded. The more politically conscious are venting their anger out on the theocratic ruling elite and demanding more political and social freedom and democratic rights. The protesters have directed their slogans for economic betterment and political freedom against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and the ruling theocratic elite.

This spontaneous eruption of countrywide protests in Iran is a manifestation of the fact that the gap between the state and the people has widened. The theocratic ruling elite has once again resorted to violence and use of brutal force to repress the protests. One cannot predict the outcome of this repressive strategy at this stage as state repression is like a double-edged sword. It can either crush a rebellion or provoke an even bigger response from the people.

Even though the recent protests are smaller in size as compared to the ones held in 2009, the magnitude and reach of the current protests is far greater. In 2009, the protests were mainly concentrated in big cities but this time protests have even spread to small towns and rural areas.

The question is: will these protests be able to bring the government down or seriously challenge the rule of theocracy? Can these protests ignite a revolution? In my opinion, the protest movement is still not big enough to pose a direct threat to either the government or theocracy, even though both are being held responsible. The mobilisation of millions of people and a solid general strike is needed to bring down an authoritarian or theocratic rule such as the one in Iran. The working class, students and the youth need to protest effectively so as to paralyse society and the state apparatus; this is not the case at the moment. An overwhelming majority of workers, students, urban poor, youth, peasants and the middle class is still not an active part of the movement. There is no doubt that discontentment and anger is widespread, but it is yet to fully translate into mass action. In this situation, the state is in a position to mobilise its forces and repress the protests – as it did in 2009, on a much bigger scale.

Four elements are needed to turn a protest movement into a revolutionary one. First, there needs to exist deep-rooted and widespread discontentment and anger in society against the government and system. Second, the protesters must have a common ideology and target they wish to achieve from the movement. Third, the movement is to be led by a well-entrenched and widely trusted national leadership, and lastly, a nationwide network has to be in place for protesters to coordinate street actions and workplace strikes. At the moment, three of these elements are missing; only one element, widespread and deep-rooted discontent and anger, is currently at play.

In 2009, two of these elements were missing – there was no common ideology, and protest organisations and groups lacked networking. The continuous repression, authoritarianism and undemocratic structures are hindering the development of such networks and leadership. And the ruling theocracy has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for dissent and a reformist leadership, allowing only a mild reformist leadership to develop within the ruling class. These reformist leaders, such as Khatami, Rafsanjani and Rouhani, do not pose any threat to the ruling clergy as they are a mild version of the more hard-line theocracy. Fundamentally, they are in agreement with the hardliners to maintain the status quo. They exist as an electoral alternate to the conservative clergy, in order to exhaust the frustration and anger that develops in Iranian society.

The Iranian regime is neither facing its first nor the last protest movement or rebellion, but one thing is clear: the theocratic ruling elite has learnt nothing from past movements. They have brutally repressed two mass movements since 2000, but the repression was never followed by reforms to satisfy the economic, social and political desires, demands or needs. They see reforms as a weakness, which is why every democratic, economic and political demand is met with brute force. Repression alone cannot solve Iran’s political, economic and social problems.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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