World News

As Iran Erupts in Protest, Tehran Is Notably Quiet

Posted January 3, 2018 6:12 p.m. EST

TEHRAN, Iran — When they stepped through the gates of Tehran University last week, the student protesters had every expectation of igniting an impassioned rally against the government. After all, the university grounds had long been a flash point for demonstrations in the capital.

But this time, their exhortations went unheeded. “Proud Iranians, support us,” they shouted, only to find pedestrians walking by, looking to see what the commotion was about but declining to join the protesters.

The protests that broke out a week ago in other parts of Iran — but never gained traction in the capital — have shown some signs of abating, though demonstrators are still taking to the streets after dark in many outlying provinces. Elite forces with the Revolutionary Guards Corps were deployed to three of them Wednesday — Hamadan, Isfahan and Lorestan — to help quell uprisings there.

The government took another step Wednesday to tamp down the uprising, staging pro-government rallies throughout the country and affording them generous coverage on state-controlled media.

But little of the action, either for or against the government, has found its way to the capital.

That stands in sharp contrast to 2009, when millions of middle-class people in Tehran erupted in anger over an election they saw as rigged, churning into the streets for months of anti-government protests that came to be called the Green Movement. But this time, as protests over the poor economy erupted in more than 80 cities over the past week and evolved into a condemnation of the political system and its clerical rulers, Tehran remained curiously muted.

There have been some gatherings, but relatively few and drawing only a few hundred at a time, a lack of interest that has confounded many residents. About 500 people have been arrested in Tehran, a figure that pales in comparison to 2009.

To some extent, some say, the difference may reflect a divide between Iran’s urban and rural populations, with more sophisticated city dwellers dismissing the leaderless provincial protests as too violent and undisciplined.

Others see the chaos and violence in nearby Syria, and worry about what could happen if Iran suffered a similar breakdown in authority. Still others, having gone through the 2009 protests and the brutal repression that finally contained the uprising, say they are willing to work patiently to wring economic and political concessions from the clerical government.

In a series of interviews, Tehran residents said they were just as upset as anyone else over the country’s widespread corruption, high unemployment and lack of freedoms, but most also said they did not know anyone who had joined a protest in recent days.

“Maybe it’s the presence of security forces,” said Farhad, a 33-year cybersecurity expert who refused to give his surname for fear of reprisals by authorities. “Or maybe Tehranis are just not interested.”

In 2009, they were interested. Millions marched in protest against the state, holding up green ribbons and posters asking, ‘'Where is my vote?” Young people, women and intellectuals were all furious over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which they said was fraudulent. Led initially by two defeated opposition presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, they took to the streets, facing heavily armed security forces.

The protests rocked the Islamic republic to its core. Around 150 people were killed, thousands were arrested, and intellectuals, journalists and politicians were tried in Stalinist-type mass proceedings, many of them forced to make humiliating public confessions of wrongdoing. Two protesters were executed.

In those days, Ali Sabzevari, now 33, joined every protest. “We were fighting for our rights and our future, but we had structure and a plan,” he said. But this time around, older, a bit heavier and wiser, he said the protests held no attraction for him.

“Those people do not know what they want. They have no clear idea, and I don’t like their slogans,” he said. “I want our society to open up, more democracy, but I don’t see how violent protests will achieve that.”

Others shared that view, and worried about playing into the hands of widely detested Western leaders like President Donald Trump and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “These people definitely have the right to protest,” Shervin Bashari, 32, said of the Iranian demonstrators, “but I do not want to join something and have Trump and Nethanyahu exploit it for their own purposes.”

Trump has posted several Twitter messages supporting the protesters, saying the United States will come to their aid at the right time.

“I don’t want to support chaos either,” said Bashari, who sells imported heating equipment. “Protest should be peaceful and with minimal costs. Now 21 people, including two children, have died, and for what?” The Green Movement and the security clampdown that followed left a deep scar on all those involved. Many protest leaders spent years in jail under harsh conditions, and Tehran endured a heavy police presence.

In 2011, the leaders of the protest — Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Karroubi — were placed under house arrest without a trial. They have remained there since, and have only recently been allowed to receive selected visitors.

The election of a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013, — celebrated with huge street parties in Tehran and other middle-class cities — was seen by many as an end to that period.

The subsequent signing of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of international sanctions was similarly celebrated by educated urbanites, who in many ways set the cultural and social norms in the country.

Many have since grown disillusioned with Rouhani, even after his re-election this year. He has failed to fulfill election promises like appointing three women as ministers (so far, none have been named), and the nuclear pact has not produced the economic boom he promised. Yet, no matter how sour their feelings about Rouhani, most reform-minded people in Tehran are sticking by him.

Leili Rashidi, a prominent Iranian actress, is typical of this group. One of the best-known figures to join the 2009 protests, a potentially career-threatening decision, Rashidi says she has no interest in joining the current protests.

Having campaigned for Rouhani’s re-election in May, she says she is not ready to desert him. “He is not perfect,” she said, “but he is the only way forward.”

She said her friends all agreed with her that efforts to overthrow the system would lead nowhere. “I sympathize with the problems of the protesters who want a better standard of living, jobs and less economic hardship,” she said. “But change must come gradually, I’ve learned. With least pain, peacefully, not through violence.