The Iranian protests’ most important achievement is that it let the regime know that the barrier of fear has been broken. These sporadic protests first started in Iraq, spread to Lebanon and led to the prime ministers in both countries resigning. It then reached the streets of Tehran with vigor.
A decision taken by three municipalities around three weeks ago to raise the price of one liter of fuel by 5,000 rials and to institute a monthly ration system for fuel, pushed tens of thousands of Iranians to take to the streets. These widespread and spontaneous protests that were first considered financial protests quickly turned into protests against the regime that invests Iranian money to consecrate Iran’s regional influence at the expense of their people.
Last week, Hezbollah in Lebanon spread videos on social media of their members, counting the millions of dollars that reached them from Iran, estimated at around 75 million. They also circulated a video of one of their members driving a car full of dollars with a photo of the Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on the windscreen of the car, listening to a pro-Iran Iraqi song. Nasrallah had said in one of his speeches that the dollar crisis in Lebanon would not impact his fighters, as Iran is a bank that does not go bankrupt, and consequently, Hezbollah will not suffer financially at all. It is not unusual that the most prominent chant in the Iranian protests was “Death to the dictator,” and this worried the regime even more.
The protests broke out in dozens of cities across Iran, including the main cities, Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan. The protesters were armed with frustration with the previously failed demonstrations, attacking security forces, blocking streets and burning hundreds of gas stations, banks, Basij bases, religious teaching centers and the photos of senior officials in the regime. This despair, frustration, and a deep hatred for the regime that was expressed by Iranians fueled the protests and made them more substantial and extensive.
According to several news agencies, around 100,000 people took part in the protests, and despite that, the level of violence that they faced exceeded that which they met during the 2018 protests. This made these protests the most important and widespread since 2009. It appears as if the more prepared the Iranian people become to overthrow the regime, the more violent and extreme in suppressing the protests and demonstrations the regime becomes, whatever the cost. Whenever the protests escalate, the regime tries to appease the people.
However, actions speak larger than words. As is usual for any dictatorship that claims not to see what is happening on the street, President Hassan Rouhani announced that the Iranian nation has been able to overcome the challenge set by the protests and a government spokesperson told Iranians that the rise in fuel prices would not be approved until March 2020.
During the days that followed, the tone changed. Regime officials started making public statements about the gruesomeness of what was going on and the danger it posed on the regime. In reality, there were reports that the prices of bread and milk would rise very soon, and the prospects of deteriorating economic situation in Iran did not look good.
Whether new economic policies were imposed or not, and whether the protests did pose a real threat to the regime or not, something has definitely changed in Iranian society. The barrier of fear was broken. The wall that forces one to control oneself from joining civil demonstrations has now been broken, The readiness of Iranian people to clash with security forces means one thing: They are no longer afraid of taking to the streets.
A regime taking exceptional measures, such as open fire, is usually reserved for very severe events. Security forces were deployed all over the country, including Revolutionary Guards, who led the operations alongside the security forces, the internal security forces, the Basij and the Ministry of Interior. Seven thousand people were detained as part of efforts to suppress the demonstrations, and several aspects of daily life were affected, including shutting down schools and universities, postponing sports events, shutting down the metro lines and imposing a curfew.
An internet and telephone blackout was also imposed to make organizing protesters more difficult. This was a measure of last resort, taken despite the repercussions to its public image and damage it had on the economy. Also, even after the government claimed that it had lifted the internet ban, many Iranians said that access was minimal, especially for websites and telecommunication networks. Despite this extreme measure being criticized by many, including an official objection by 11 members of the Consultative Assembly, the internet ban was crucial to allowing the regime to suppress the demonstrations in just one week.
The Iranian people, nevertheless, continued to voice their battle cry. Video clips and images of protesters found their way to the world and informed it of how widespread the protests against the regime were and the violence they were met with. Amnesty International announced that 143 protesters were killed during the protests but did not talk about the mass murder in Mahshahr, where the Revolutionary Guards surrounded the area and killed between 40 and 100 peaceful demonstrators that had taken refuge in a sugar cane plantation. It is said that the bodies were burned.
The regime tried to downplay the number of people killed, but a high-ranking Iranian official in the Ministry of Interior confirmed the death of 218 people. While the demonstrations did not spiral out of control, the large number of casualties may be an indication that the security forces were surprised by the severity of the events and the extent of the rage on the street.
The protests may have receded, but neither the regime nor the people should undermine the importance of this public uprising. The rage that was expressed in these recent events indicates that the Iranian people are growing more and more repulsed by the regime, even if the latter found crooked solutions to quell the general frustration. The truth is, it is impossible for there to be a real economic solution, or a way to improve quality of life, as long as Iran continues to use Qasem Soleimani’s Quds Force to consecrate its influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
Although, its behavior during the last few years indicates the regime may have begun to understand the current sensitivities of the people, it may try to preserve its strong image to prevent demonstrators, even when it is actually weaker than it appears. This will push people to take to the streets again and to wage a war of endurance against the regime. Although Iranians have started to realize that there will be no peace in Iran or the Middle East if the illegitimate regime that occupies their country is not overthrown, it is not clear who will prevail.