The wave of violent protests churning across Iran differs dramatically from the last major uprising that rocked the country in 2009 and could spiral out of control if the regime moves too quickly toward military-style tactics to crush the unrest.
While the abortive Green Revolution eight years ago was driven mainly by the children of wealthy political elites in Tehran in the wake of a questionable election, the spontaneous protests this time around are unfolding across the country and driven by what analysts describe as “the working poor” — a segment of the population that has little to lose in the face of a crackdown by the regime.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has tread lightly since the protests began last week, weighed in for the first time Tuesday by claiming the protests were being spurred on by “enemies of Iran.” His remarks came in the wake of harsh comments from President Trump on Twitter on the government’s handling of the popular protests amid reports of hundreds of arrests and 21 deaths caused by the unrest.
The White House said Tuesday that Mr. Trump was weighing new sanctions on Iran in light of the unrest. Mr. Trump on Twitter said the Iranian nuclear deal President Obama helped negotiate in 2015 was in part to blame for giving Tehran billions of dollars to fund the military and repress dissent at home.
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called on the Security Council and the U.N. Human Rights Council to hold emergency meetings on the crisis.
“Nowhere is the urgency of peace, security and freedom being tested more than in Iran,” Mrs. Haley told reporters in New York.
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All sides are now watching to see whether the protests will grow in the coming days — and how far the government of President Hassan Rouhani will go to suppress popular protest. Sources with contacts inside Iran say the toll could climb significantly.
“The segment of the population that’s out protesting right now is much the same segment that carried out the revolution against the U.S.-backed Shah nearly 40 years ago,” said one of the sources, who spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity. “We’re talking about people who weathered the bullets of the Shah. We don’t know how these people are going to react if there’s a violent crackdown.”
Rahim Guravand, a 34-year-old Tehran construction worker, said the government’s misplaced priorities were at the heart of the crisis.
“The government should stop spending money on unnecessary things in Syria, Iraq and other places and allocate it for creating jobs here,” he told The Associated Press.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the protests are smaller than the 2009 demonstrations, which featured massive crowds in the Iranian capital. “But the number of cities they’ve popped up in is astounding — especially because these are cities where the regime would have expected to have had support,” he said.
“This is spreading through the urban poor in cities other than Tehran, people that should be the staunchest supporters of the regime,” Mr. Taleblu said. “The fact that the regime can’t count on that support now is really embarrassing for hard-liners running the government,” he said.
It took Ayatollah Khamenei nearly a week to issue a public statement on the situation because he’s afraid of sending the wrong message, Mr. Taleblu added.
President Hassan Rouhani has said demonstrators have a right to protest peacefully, but the 78-year-old supreme leader, who has final say over all state matters, warned Tuesday of an enemy “waiting for an opportunity, for a crack through which it can infiltrate.”
“Look at the recent days’ incidents,” the supreme leader said. “All those who are at odds with the Islamic republic have utilized various means, including money, weapons, politics and [the] intelligence apparatus, to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic republic and the Islamic Revolution.”
Gulf Arab nations, including Iran’s archrival Saudi Arabia, are watching the protests carefully, and some analysts warned Tuesday that the situation could take a far more serious turn in short order.
“The fact that these protests shifted so quickly from being an outcry against economic conditions to now a political protest against the regime shows you how desperate things are and how hungry the Iranian people are for change,” said Mr. Taleblu.
The demonstrations began unexpectedly on Dec. 28 in the conservative city of Mashhad — some 550 miles east of Tehran. Crowds initially were chanting about the weakness of the Iranian economy, plagued by high unemployment, inflation and a widespread feeling that the lifting of economic sanctions following the nuclear deal had not trickled down to ordinary Iranians. A national poll taken in the summer put economic issues far ahead of security and foreign policy as a top priority for voters.
But the most recent unrest spread rapidly over the weekend to other cities, where some are now calling for Ayatollah Khamenei’s ouster and an overthrow of the ruling regime.
Where demonstrators called for more personal freedoms and civil rights in 2009, many now are expressing anger at their government’s economic record. Some protesters have chanted against the government’s military interventions in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, where Tehran is helping underwrite for proxy militias.
With rallies raging Tuesday in at least a dozen cities, including Tehran, there were reports that some 450 had been arrested.
Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, said the protests are likely to surge if there is a major government crackdown, led by conservative groups that see themselves as guardians of the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic republic.
“If this goes on a couple more days, at some point the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] will get involved,” he told The Washington Times. “That could create a surge with the protests getting bigger at first, but I believe, ultimately this will be put down by the government.”
However, one Iranian source who spoke anonymously with The Times said concerns are high inside Iran that an aggressive crackdown could devolve into a Syria-style situation in which outside powers attempt to militarize the protesters.
“People are worried that if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps comes in and starts brutalizing people like it did in 2009, there will be others in the region that say, ‘Well, we’re willing to provide arms to the protesters,’” said the source. “To some extent, that’s how Syria started — it was peaceful protests, then [Syrian President Bashar] Assad went in with tanks and six months later there’s nothing left of Syria.”
President Trump said on Twitter Tuesday that “the people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.”
“The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights,” the president wrote. “The U.S. is watching!”
Iran’s economy has improved marginally since the nuclear deal in which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for the end of some international sanctions. The nation now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars worth of Western aircraft.
But the economic opportunities have yet to reach the masses. Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 percent again. It was a recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 percent — which the government has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears — that apparently spurred protesters to take to the streets last week.
Some analysts believe the protests starting in Mashhad as an attempt by hard-line conservatives in the regime seeking to undercut Mr. Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric who strongly backed the nuclear deal and just won a second four-year term in elections in May. But the apparently leaderless demonstrations, spread in both size and scope of message with help from social media, in particularly a messaging app called Telegram.
The government has since shut down access to Telegram and the photo-sharing app Instagram, which now join Facebook and Twitter in being banned, the AP reported.
Mr. Rouhani has claimed the exiled opposition group known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq was inciting the violence. According to his website, Mr. Rouhani spoke by telephone with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, and urged France to stop hosting the group, known as the MEK, which fled after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The MEK has close ties to the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) of Iran, which holds an annual rally in France to call for the downfall of Iran’s theocratic government. Tens of thousands attend the rally, which has featured speeches from U.S. political figures, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
Ali Safavi, an NCRI spokesman in Washington, said Tuesday that the group stands with the protesters taking to the streets in Iran.
“The slogans that are being chanted are slogans we’ve been advocating for the last 39 years,” he said. “Some might want to say this whole thing is spontaneous, but it clearly isn’t.”