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Iran grapples with how to deal with protests

As the picture of the protests in Iran becomes more clear, it is evident that the main challenge for the establishment is how to deal with them.
Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017.
Students protested in a third day of demonstrations, videos on social media showed, but were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators.  / AFP PHOTO / STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Roughly a week after protests began in several Iranian cities, the main challenge facing the establishment in Tehran is how to deal with them. On Dec. 28, few thought that the gathering of a few hundred people in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest and holiest city, was going to result in a domino effect, with protests popping up in several cities around the country. Over the past months, sit-ins and demonstrations were organized by families who lost money in bankrupt financial institutions across the country. These sit-ins, however, did not give any indication to the organizers that such protests might turn into a bigger situation, where anti-corruption and anti-government chants would end up turning into anti-Islamic Republic slogans.

For President Hassan Rouhani, the protests should be dealt with as an opportunity, not a threat. Rouhani was originally the target of the first demonstrations, which were organized under the auspices of some of the Principlist camp’s figures, such as defeated presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi and his father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the imam of Mashhad. While the Principlists were accused of organizing the first gathering that sparked the demonstrations, a political source close to the Principlist camp denied this allegation in an interview with Al-Monitor. The source insisted that Rouhani’s economic and social policies are to be blamed for all that’s happening. In his Jan. 5 sermon, Alamolhoda criticized conservatives who are riding the protests to settle political scores.

Regardless of whether the Principlists are responsible for the protests, there’s a problem in the country and both sides lack a common vision for how to reach a solution. Rouhani and his Reform camp allies believe that it’s important to sort the demonstrators into categories, hence, refraining from accusing all of them of being part of a foreign conspiracy against the country. However, so far no steps have been taken to address the people’s grievances.

People who follow daily politics in Iran believe that the government is not dealing with the widespread rage. On the Principlist side, there are daily calls for acknowledging the reality of the protesters’ economic grievances. Yet besides these calls, they are dealing with the events as part of a wider foreign conspiracy that’s aimed at shaking the stability of the country.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, announced at a Jan. 3 press conference the end of what he described as “the sedition of 1396,” referring to the current Iranian year ending March 20. Jafari hinted that a “former official” may have been involved in initially starting the protests that quickly spiraled out of control. He said, “This call [to protest] started with a website that is linked to an individual who has opened his mouth in opposition to the values and principles of the system.”

Jafari continued, “Security officials are investigating this matter, and if they see interference by this former official, certainly he will be confronted by law enforcement.” While Jafari never named the official, it’s believed he was referring to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the political establishment in Iran is at its worst; it comes after his refused candidacy in the May 2017 presidential election and the latest charges by the judiciary against him and his former deputy Hamid Baghaei, who was sentenced to 63 years in jail. The former president challenged the supreme leader’s advice not to run for office, and later he started an open confrontation with the judiciary, mainly its chief, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani. Ahmadinejad also organized a sit-in at the shrine of Shah Abdul Azim near Tehran in protest of measures against his close aides. His steps are seen as an escalation, and his choice of means, a sit-in at a religious site, is a historical practice that was used by several Iranian movements and politicians before the Islamic revolution.

But Ahmadinejad’s case remains a problem from within the system. The protesters are proving day after day that besides raising socio-economic slogans, they are challenging the whole system. This is attracting all of the anti-establishment forces — from royalists to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and secularists. These anti-establishment forces are backing the protesters with the help of regional and international political figures and media from countries that regard the Islamic Republic as an adversary, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Iran’s revolutionary institutions decided that the best response to this wave would be to get people marching in the streets showing support for the Islamic Republic and denouncing foreign intervention. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke at a gathering Jan. 2 stressing that in recent events “enemies of Iran have allied and used the various means they possess, including money, weapons, politics and intelligence services, to trouble the Islamic Republic. The enemy is always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation.” The supreme leader also promised he’s going to say something about these events when the time is right. It remains to be seen when that will be.

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