By Venus Upadhayaya,
Recent protests in Iran that began after the country’s military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 on board, are unique in that they are opposing the main institutions, particularly the supreme leadership and the military, that constitute Iran’s Islamic regime, according to experts.
Pierre Pahlavi, an expert on Iran’s foreign policy, told The Epoch Times that the widespread protests that started on Jan. 11, mostly on university campuses across Iran, are unlike other protests the country has seen in recent years.
“Unlike the November demonstrations, which were motivated by the increase in the cost of living, these demonstrations target the main institutions of the Islamic regime: the Supreme Leader himself [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whom the street
blame for their amateurism and incompetence,” Pahlavi, chair of the Department of Security and International Affairs at the Canadian Forces College, said in an email.
Pahlavi, a member of the former Pahlavi royal family—which ruled the country until the 1979 Islamic revolution that put in place the current regime—said the protests that began on Jan. 11 indicate a reversal of popular support, which was grandly portrayed as in favor of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, after the assassination of General Soleimani and which flipped against the regime after its confessed to shooting down the plane.
Even after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assured the public that a thorough investigation would be conducted into the military’s “unforgivable error” of shooting down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, the leader couldn’t assuage the widespread feeling of distrust among the people, according to a report by the Atlantic Council.
“So many lives have been lost so tragically but I don’t think anybody in the upper echelons will pay for it,” Maryam, a 29-year-old teacher who joined protesters in Tehran’s Azadi square on Jan. 12 and 13, told the author of the report.
The protests in Azadi square were in themselves symbolic of the “flip” that Pahlavi talked about. Azadi square, a popular spot for revolutionary protests, is built around a tower that was commissioned by the last monarch of Iran to celebrate 2,500 years of the establishment of imperial Iran. Before the Islamic revolution, the landmark was called Shahyad Square—meaning a square built in the memory of the Shah.
The square was the venue of many mass protests that led to the revolution and in its wake was called Azadi, which means freedom in Persian. The Islamic Iranian Republic holds its annual celebrations commemorating its founding in the square.
Last year, crowds streamed in from the capital’s far-flung neighborhoods waving Iranian flags and chanting “Death to America”—standard fare at rallies across Iran that the regime’s critics say are massive propaganda events.
This “flip” of scenarios, though not yet proportional in terms of numbers, appears to showcase a marked change in sentiment toward the regime and its institutions.
Maryam said: “They’ve shown many times over that they latch on to power and their titles at any cost, despite the deaths of so many people, which I think is what has made many like me feel that their lives are not worth much in the eyes of those in power.”
Muhammad Sahimi, an expert on Iranian politics, told The Epoch Times that the protests represent a deep sense of crisis among Iranians.
“The protests are against the restrictive nature of the Islamic Republic, the press censorship, and at least some aspects of the foreign policy of the government,” he said.
Pahlavi said that while there have been similar protest movements, previously there have been decadelong gaps between them (1999, 2009–2011). “The fact that recent demonstrations take place at an increasingly closer interval is in itself a significant factor.”
Suppression of Protests
Recently, video footage has been circulating on social media showing violence allegedly perpetrated by the Iranian regime against protesters. Amnesty International has verified incidents of “forces [firing] pointed pellets from airguns, usually used for hunting, at peaceful protesters causing bleeding and painful injuries.”
“Security forces also used rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters as well as kicking and punching them, beating them with batons and carrying out arbitrary arrests,” the organization wrote.
During last November’s protests in Iran, Reuters reported that authorities had killed 1,500 protestors, citing anonymous officials inside the regime, which would make it the bloodiest suppression of protests since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said, “It is appalling that Iran’s security forces have violently crushed peaceful vigils and protests by people demanding justice for the 176 passengers killed on the plane and expressing their anger at the Iranian authorities’ initial cover-up.”
Amnesty said that it has evidence in the form of photos and testimonials from injured protesters, and that it has received a “shocking allegation” of sexual violence committed against a female protester who was arbitrarily arrested by security forces in plain clothes.
More videos have surfaced alleging that the families of the air crash victims have been harassed by the authorities and haven’t yet received compensation.
“The victims’ families are very upset for obvious reasons,” Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, told The Epoch Times. “The fact that the government initially tried to cover up its role in the crash has laid bare the frustrations and fear of many Iranians who feel that the government is not working in the interest of the people.”
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and an activist who has been constantly posting on Twitter about the aftermath of the plane crash and the protests, wrote on Jan. 16 about allegations that the Iranian authorities “extracted forced statements” from the families of the victims for its state TV propaganda.
“Iran has extracted forced statements from Amir-Hossein Saeed-Nia’s parents on state TV,” Alinejad wrote in a tweet to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Before being forced to appear on TV, Amir Hossein’s mum had said his son was Canadian and that only Canada could help them.” In the statement, Saeed-Nia’s father was made to praise the Supreme Leader.
Alinejad later shared that after the parents were forced to give statements, Saeedi-Nia’s grandmother sought accountability from the authorities.
“They killed my kid,” the grandmother said in a video shared by Alinejad. “God didn’t kill him; they killed him. They killed him. When God kills him, they’ll say it is an accident. The airplane exploded in the air. But they killed my son. Muslims hear us. They killed our Amir-Hossein. Whoever did this, I hope suffers the worse end.”
Right after Iran’s government extracted forced statements from the family of Amir-Hossein Saeedi-Nia (where the father is forced to praise the Supreme Leader), the grandmother went out to ask for accountability.
— Masih Alinejad
(@AlinejadMasih) January 16, 2020
In reaction to the video, Hurd said, “It is important to listen to women like this grandmother and understand that there is a space occupied by many Iranians who are critical of the regime and also fiercely opposed to U.S. interference in Iran’s affairs and in the region more generally.”
Hurd believes that the protests represent people’s wish for a “democratic third way” and that the United States “needs to understand this better, and act accordingly with more respect.”
Alinejad also shared a video of a wailing mother whose son was killed in the crash and who was prevented from mourning him because the authorities built a fence around his grave. The woman is heard screaming in the video: “Leave us alone! Leave us alone!”
“My brother died for this country 30 years ago. I have been proud he died for his country, but our rulers are bloodsuckers,” the woman says in the video.
Put yourself in the shoes of this poor Iranian mother:
-The regime killed her son, who was on the Ukrainian Airlines plane
-They also built a fence around her son’s grave, preventing her from mourning him.
Hear her screams to authorities: “Leave us alone! Leave us alone” pic.twitter.com/c0uVWa2Vnn
— Masih Alinejad
(@AlinejadMasih) January 17, 2020
To highlight the kind of anger Iranians are feeling toward the regime, Hurd talked about Kimia Alizadeh, the Iranian Olympic athlete who recently defected.
“How do I start? With a hello, a goodbye or to offer my condolences? Hello to the oppressed people of Iran, goodbye to the noble people of Iran, and my condolences to the perpetually mourning people of Iran,” Alizadeh said on Instagram.
Where’s Iran Heading?
Hurd believes the protests represent a new phase in the history of dissent inside Iran. “The Iranian government is getting nervous and unfortunately the repression of these protests may become even more violent,” she said.
Sahimi anticipates that if the Iranian regime doesn’t pay attention to the demands of the people, “the protests will grow more and move toward replacing the political system by a better and more representative government.”
Sam Bazzi, a Lebanese Middle East expert, told The Epoch Times that the protests, though small in number compared to the volume of crowds that the Iranian regime gathered for Soleimani’s funeral, are an embarrassment for the regime on the international stage.
“There are millions of silent regime opponents who have been cowed by the brutality of the IRGC and the Basij mobilization militia,” Bazzi said. “The regime monitors opposition activists and, ever since the 2009 Green Revolution, the IRGC deploys snipers to take out protest organizers and zealot activists. Therefore, most Iranians prefer to avoid the regime’s wrath and killing machine.”
Pahlavi said that the political influence of the IRGC, the most powerful institution in the regime, has been constantly increasing inside Iran and “a significant part of Iranian leadership is now held, directly or indirectly, by its members.” As a result, it’s possible the IRGC has deepened its roots in Iranian society, with the country’s regime increasingly becoming a military dictatorship with a “theocratic facade.”
He said that while the newest wave of grievances has conjured a “new test for the solidity of the Islamic regime,” but any rumors about the irreversible deterioration of the regime “may still be greatly exaggerated.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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