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May 16, 2022 1:05 pm
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Iran Caught Off Guard by Surging Economic Protests

avatar by Potkin Azarmehr and Steven Emerson

Opinion

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan September 17, 2021. REUTERS/Didor Sadulloev

Iran’s rulers are alarmed at the prospect of nationwide mass protests, as the hot summer months approach. Prices of some basic goods like bread, dairy products, and chicken skyrocketed as much as 300 percent overnight. There have already been nightly protests in the oil rich province of Khuzestan, and protests are spreading to neighboring provinces.

Last week, a leaked audio file from a senior Iran state TV executive demonstrated the depth of the regime’s concern. “The country is going through an exceptional situation, the soaring prices, frustration with the officials and so on,” Alireza Habibi tells producers and presenters. “… but we should try to calm the public’s anxieties, not incite it further …. Don’t go and make programs highlighting these problems. This is not the time for making such programs. Wait till things calm down.”

To make sure his instructions were understood clearly, Habibi added “the slightest dissent in this regard will be unforgivable, because this is a national security issue. So make sure you yourself and your channel don’t suffer as a result of your actions.”

These concerns were also echoed last Tuesday by Khuzestan MP Qassem Sa’edi. “People are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “They want to be loyal to the regime, but there is a limit to how much they can take. There is a good likelihood we face a bigger danger than the previous nationwide unrests.”

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Sensing the brewing tension and fears of mass protests, Khuzestan’s Security Maintenance Council — a body that assesses current trends and takes preemptive actions to avert social unrest — announced the football match between Khuzestan Steel FC and Tehran’s Independence FC will be held without spectators.

Despite all the efforts to maintain order, protests erupted Wednesday night in several cities in Khuzestan province, which is in southwestern Iran. In Ahvaz, protesters called for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to resign: “Raisi, you liar,” they chanted. “What happened to all those things you promised?”

In Dezful, people chanted, “We don’t want an Islamic Republic,” and “We will fight, we will die, we will take back our Iran.” In Andimeshk, they chanted “Mullahs Get Lost!” In Izeh, the security forces fired tear gas as people chanted “Death to Khamenei” and fought back.

On Thursday, the protests spread to Khuzestan’s neighboring province, Lorestan. In Dorood, people fought the anti-riot special units. In Share-Kord, people pleaded for law enforcement forces to join them, saying those forces are also the victims of this regime’s mismanagement.

In one of the videos released on social media, people encircled a Baseej militia member after he arrested a protester. “Can you not see how the people are suffering?” they asked. In another video, a man in his car asks the special units moving towards the protesters with their shields and batons, “Do you not have to buy rice and oil yourselves?”

The regime’s response was the usual shutting down of the Internet to stop people from seeing the protest videos, which urged others to join the protesters too.

Law enforcement forces have tried to contain the situation and use selective punishment rather than apply a brutal crackdown, as they have done on previous occasions.

Despite the regime’s fears and concerns about the likelihood of unrest, last week’s protests still took them by surprise. They thought such unrest wouldn’t start until summer, when the electricity and water shortages, and rising prices, synergized into a major discontent.

Meanwhile, Iran’s teachers are organizing nationwide protests against their deteriorating living standards as their wages fall behind the soaring inflation rates. The regime has arrested several teachers’ union activists to stop the protests, but the gatherings have continued. In a desperate attempt to discredit them, the security apparatus has tried to accuse the teachers of being manipulated by foreign agents.

Until now, Iran, sensing an over-eagerness among European countries and the United States to reinstate the nuclear agreement, has sought more concessions and taken more foreign hostages to strengthen its negotiating hand. If the expected nationwide unrest becomes a serious threat to the regime, however, it may be forced into accepting a nuclear deal with fewer concessions in order to get some urgent economic relief and ease domestic tension.

If that happens, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration will send Iran another lifeline to overcome its summer of discontent, similar to when President Barack Obama sent a plane with cash after Iran accepted the original nuclear deal and released four American prisoners.

Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), the author of eight books on national security and terrorism, the producer of two documentaries, and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.

IPT Senior Fellow Potkin Azarmehr is a London-based investigative journalist, business intelligence analyst, and TV documentary maker who was born in Iran. He regularly contributes to several newspapers and television stations on Iran and Middle East related news. You can follow him on twitter @potkazar

 

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