The Iran Protests No One Is Covering

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems / Getty Images

For months, the Iranian people have taken to the streets to protest against their government, a cruel and oppressive Islamist theocracy that claims a monopoly on morality. These are not just demonstrations about economic struggles and water shortages—results largely of the regime's corruption and incompetence. The popular protests also show a growing rejection of the Islamic Republic's brutal rule, and even its existence altogether. Unrest continues to spread throughout the country, with Iranians getting bolder and angrier. The potential consequences for Iran and the Middle East could be transformational. Yet the media have completely ignored these recent developments, to the point that only someone following certain Iran watchers and Iranian activists on Twitter can even know of their existence.

The casual news consumer became well aware of the anti-government protests that broke out in Iran on Dec. 28. What appeared to start as demonstrations focused on the regime's economic policies quickly became aimed at the government itself, with frustrated Iranians across the country—including working-class citizens from peripheral provinces, the regime's supposed base of support—calling for an end to the ayatollahs' rule. The protests prompted countless op-eds and news stories. But the momentum supposedly fizzled out after about two weeks, and the protests were quickly forgotten. Even the careful news watcher would be excused for thinking the regime succeeded in suppressing the protests and restoring "order."

That's not what happened, however. "A careful review of the evidence clearly indicates that the protests were not a short-lived phenomenon with temporary impact," notes Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, the incoming executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. "Rather, they marked a turning point and permanent change in the trend of events and political calculations in Iran."

Protests broke out in more than a dozen Iranian cities on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, with Iranians chanting slogans that rejected the regime's legitimacy. Days later, the oil-rich Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran, especially the city of Ahwaz, became the scene of continuous unrest. Locals began protesting a regime plan, implemented by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, to reroute Karoon River, a major source of water for essential aspects of life in the area. The regime also diverted water from another river and conducted excessive dam construction. These projects have led to several dried local lakes and ponds and increasing pollution. Water, electricity, and communications services began facing shortages and were frequently cut off. Security forces warned locals not to protest, and the regime sent anti-riot police and Basij militia groups to stop the demonstrations. Notably, while Iranians were protesting the lack of vital services, their chants quickly turned political, from decrying the lack of water and clean air to saying "death to tyranny" and "death to repression."

Residents in the mostly Arab-populated Khuzestan Province have also protested against the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting organization, which aired a children's program that excluded Arabs from a map purportedly showing the geographic locations of Iran's different ethnic minorities. Iranian authorities arrested hundreds of people during the subsequent demonstrations in March.

In the same month, protests over water broke out in the central city of Isfahan, with farmers chanting the tongue-in-cheek slogan, "Death to farmers, long live oppressors!" The demonstrations quickly became violent after riot police came to the scene. Locals accused politicians of accepting bribes in exchange for allowing water to be diverted from their areas.

The Isfahan protests continued into this month, when Iranian authorities cracked down on the demonstrations, during which some of the farmers tellingly focused their chants on Tehran's foreign policy and President Hassan Rouhani. "We shall get our right to water, even if we die. Let go of Syria; think about us. Death to this imposter government," they said. "Equality and justice, this is the demand of the nation. If the water will not flow to the river, there will be a revolt tomorrow. The liar Rouhani, where is our Zayandeh Rud river."

These chants echo those uttered by protesters this week in Kazerun, Fars Province, where thousands of people poured into the streets to oppose a plan to split the city into two. Demonstrators argue the plan is an attempt to make up for years of government mismanagement. When police arrived, protesters chanted, "Guns, tanks, and explosives don't scare us anymore."

Many protesters also shouted, "Our enemy is here, but they always say it's America." That is remarkable: Iranians are saying the United States, the "Great Satan," is not the enemy, but their own government is. The chant is increasingly popular and being heard in more places, as are insults targeting Rouhani, considered a regime "moderate" and "reformer" in many circles in the West. Iranians, however, seem to disagree with the moderate-hardliner distinction, which so many Western analysts and journalists have fetishized in recent years. "Reformists, hardliners, the game is up," protesters have chanted, as well as, "Rouhani the liar, where is our money?"

 

Perhaps most striking of all, during a massive protest held during Friday prayer in Kazerun, demonstrators chanted, "Our enemy is right here. They're lying when they say it's America."

The current unrest reveals the increasing impotence and brittleness of the regime, which can neither address its citizens' problems nor stop them from protesting. The government may be unwilling to meet the demands of its people, but Iran's leadership knows it cannot ignore these protests. The ayatollahs and their security forces, therefore, are stuck in a position in which they want to stop the unrest but know using too much force risks spiraling the situation out of control.

The protests also further debunk two myths that many Western experts and media outlets perpetuate. One is that the West can engage so-called moderates within the Iranian regime, like President Hassan Rouhani, through economic incentives to foster gradual reforms that will moderate the Islamic Republic. Beyond the fact that these "moderates" have little say over Iran's foreign, defense, and nuclear policies and agree with Iranian "hardliners" on the issues that matter most for the regime, the protester chants castigating Rouhani certainly undermine this view. The second myth is that an American pressure campaign against the regime would unite Iranians in support of their government under the banner of nationalism.

Too many analysts and journalists ignore the fact that protests occur regularly in Iran, which will lead many to be surprised when another large wave makes the headlines. Iranians protest not because they have the freedom to assemble and express themselves; they protest because they don't, and because many are determined to no longer live under a clerical regime that cares about imperialist ambitions and protecting its own financial interests rather than serving its people.

So the Iranian people will continue to protest, and their government will continue to respond with oppression. Maybe an American reporter will eventually write a story on this when it's not front-page news?