World News

Iranians Protest in the Capital, Defying a Widening Crackdown

Posted January 1, 2018 1:26 p.m. EST

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian security forces clamped down on the capital, Tehran, on Monday, after demonstrators across the country ignored calls for calm by President Hassan Rouhani over the weekend in the most significant venting of pent-up economic and political frustrations in years.

Since the protests began five days ago, at least 12 people have been killed in clashes with security forces, according to the state television. On Monday in Tehran, the atmosphere was tense and security forces were out in large numbers. Protest occurred sporadically, with people shouting slogans and leaving.

On Sunday, protesters tried to storm police stations, military and installations, and also attacked a seminary, state television reported, showing footage of burned cars and fires. The protests took place in at least half a dozen cities, including Karaj, Qazvin, Qaemshahr, Dorud and Tuyserkan, it said.

The protests are the biggest in the country since 2009, when a wave of demonstrations after the contested election of a hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, turned into a wider protest movement against Iran’s leaders.

This time, it is the failure of Rouhani, a moderate, to deliver greater political changes and economic opportunity that has led to a boiling over of frustrations, especially from young people.

When the protests started Thursday in the city of Mashhad, demonstrators initially chanted slogans about the weak economy. As the protests spread, they have taken on a far more political cast.

Increasingly, they are being directed at Iran’s entire political establishment. Some demonstrators have even called for the death of Rouhani and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The strength and volatility of the protests have caught Iranian politicians by surprise. Some have denounced them as “riots,” while others have acknowledged that the problems at the root of the widespread frustrations can no longer be ignored.

But it was clear that the demonstrators would be given no leeway. By Monday, a crackdown by the government and security services was building.

Riot police with water cannons were out in full force in Tehran, deploying at strategic points. Around 200 people have so far been arrested in the capital alone, one security official told Iran’s ISNA news agency. There were arrests in provincial towns as well.

Access to the Telegram messaging app and the Instagram photo and video sharing app continued to be blocked by authorities, cutting off the main communication tool for protesters. Special software used to circumvent the government filters could still be downloaded easily.

Yet on Monday, as on other days, there were calls for protests online and on foreign-based Persian-language satellite channels. Some residents said they were determined to continue the demonstrations, and several hundred gathered at central squares.

While the numbers of protesters in Tehran was small Monday, the discontent was widespread. Many people on the streets complained about high prices, corruption and lack of change.

“We need to improve our economy, and the people’s voices must be heard,” said a 28-year-old woman, a piano teacher in Tehran, who asked not to be named out of fear of repercussions. “I’ll go out tonight again.”

Many youths in larger cities enthusiastically voted for Rouhani when he was re-elected in May, raising expectations among many in the reform camp. But since then even many of the president’s supporters say he has failed to fulfill his promises for improving an economy sorely hobbled by years of sanctions, corruption and mismanagement.

Even the lifting of economic sanctions under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with large foreign powers including the United States has not unleashed the growth Rouhani had hoped for, as key sectors remain under the thumb of obscure powers, including religious foundations and the country’s Revolutionary Guards.

The poor economy especially affects Iran’s young people — more than 50 percent of the population is younger than 30, according to official statistics. Officially, youth unemployment is near 20 percent, and experts say it is really closer to 40 percent.

Those economic frustrations do not appear to have been offset by the greater social freedoms that the president has granted young people.

Under Rouhani, strict Islamic rules have been somewhat relaxed. Concerts have been allowed, and the moral police largely off the streets. Illegal parties are usually no longer raided, although there have been exceptions.

But there is a wide gap between Iran’s changing and modernizing society and Iran’s leaders who insist on keeping up their anti-Western policies and state interpretation of Islam.

Rouhani’s decisions not to include any women in his Cabinet, and failure to put a relaxation of rules into law, has made many bitter.

Rouhani has complained that power centers dominated by hard-liners have blocked many of his plans and decisions. Those obstacles to reform have penned up frustrations that are being directed at the political and clerical establishment.

In Takestan, west of Tehran, “several people” were arrested after attacking a seminary, Iranian news media reported. In Karaj, also close to Tehran, a gas station was burned, a witness reported.

Earlier Monday, the semiofficial ILNA news agency quoted Hedayatollah Khademi, a representative for the town of Izeh, in Iran’s oil-rich but poor Khuzestan region, as saying two people had died there Sunday night. He said the cause of death was not immediately known. State television announced that 10 people had died Sunday, but did not provide a location. “Some armed protesters tried to take over some police stations and military bases but faced serious resistance from security forces,” a presenter said.

“Illegal protests continued last night in several cities with less protesters participating, but they were as violent and turbulent, making residents of these cities concerned about their and their businesses’ security,” the state television report said.

The videos showed burned cars, fires and wreckages on the pavement. The report also showed a fire-brigade vehicle that was said to have been seized by protesters in Dorud, Lorestan province, and killed two people in an accident.

By Monday evening, anti-riot police officers belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps waited in an alley near Tehran’s city theater for a potential protest to start, as men and women anxiously walked the sidewalks. Others, families and couples, cruised around the area in cars. Many were young people.

“They want to start, but there is too many police,” one taxi driver said, looking at hundreds of people, and even more security forces. Plainclothes officers on motorcycles zipped by. Busses stood ready to take potential troublemakers into custody.