Six days of demonstrations — which have left at least 20 people dead — showed no signs of easing as the anger from the streets found new targets. What began as frustration over Iran’s sluggish economy has broadened to include open defiance of Iran’s Islamic leadership itself.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, blamed “enemies” of Iran on Tuesday for protests that have left more than 20 people dead, in his first comments since the unrest started last week.
Nine people, including a child, died overnight in violence in central Iran, state media say.
The protests are the largest since the disputed 2009 presidential election. That time the security forces cracked down hard, and they have threatened to do so again.
“In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic,” Iran’s supreme leader was quoted as saying in a post on his official website.
The regime has started shutting down social media platforms like Telegram that Iranians use to organize these protests. President Hassan Rouhani — remember when he was everybody’s favorite “moderate”? — is warning demonstrators about destroying public property.
Ahmad Alamolhoda, the leader of Friday prayers in Mashhad and a hard-line cleric close to the supreme leader, is accused of encouraging his supporters to protest against President Hassan Rouhani, a political opponent.
Similarities between the current protests and the 2009 uprising are quite limited. While the current demonstrations started outside of Tehran—in Mashhad and Qom—and quickly spread to other cities, their size remains relatively small compared to what the world observed after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 elections.
The 2009-10 protests were suppressed through the use of excessive force and widespread atrocities committed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the paramilitary Basij. The Green movement was symbolized by Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman who was shot dead in broad daylight and whose last moments were captured by cameras and broadcast the world over.
In the first few days after that election, more than one million people protested in the streets of Tehran. Though quite ferocious, the current protests have rarely numbered more than a few thousand in any specific locality.
The protests in 2009 also had very specific goals—at least initially. They were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and the protestors were demanding the votes be recounted. The protests also had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who gave the movement much-needed organization.
The current protests appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days. According to witnesses I’ve spoken to, the protests were initiated in Mashhad by religious hardliners who sought to take advantage of the population’s legitimate economic grievances to score points against the Hassan Rouhani government, which they consider too moderate.
Many young Iranians are frustrated by limits on reformers, including President Hassan Rouhani, to push for greater social freedoms and political openness in a country where the ruling clerics still hold all the cards. Working-class Iranians and others, meanwhile, are increasingly unhappy with a stagnant economy despite the lifting of international sanctions under the nuclear accord with world powers.