Thursday, 28th November 2019

Iranians challenge a system that knows only a zero-sum game

The sudden fuel price rises imposed overnight on 14/15 November which sparked a wave of protests that swept across Iran, and the brutal repression of those demonstrations, speak volumes about the character of a political system forged from the ruins of the Pahlavi regime in 1979 which soon evolved into the current velayat-e faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent). The Islamic Revolution, and the subsequent eight-year war with Iraq, provided a crucible for institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and bonyads (religious foundations) to develop networks and businesses that go far beyond their military or charitable core. They have created an ecosystem, dominated by the rahbar (supreme leader) ¬– a post held, since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamanei, now 80 years-old – and his revolutionary/conservative (‘principalist’) allies. Revolutionary Iran’s economy and society has been dominated by this ‘Islamic’ state; with even the privatisation launched in the mid-2000s structured to create a very Iranian form of crony capitalism, in which commercial arms of the IRGC, bonyads and other winners from velayat-e faqih took control of companies and other assets.

That system is badly in need of reform, particularly as it tries to deal with an economic malaise exacerbated by United States President Donald Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions and his repudiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. The protests were triggered by what seemed like a snap decision – approved by the rahbar but which President Hassan Rouhani has since (implausibly) claimed not to have been forewarned about – to raise fuel prices by up to 200%. That included a doubling of the price for the first 60 litres a month of petrol and higher prices thereafter. To compensate, the authorities said proceeds from higher prices would finance cash subsidies for poorer Iranians. In a system riddled with crony abuses, such statements have not proved reassuring.

From the rahbar down, the ‘revolutionary’ establishment has attacked the ‘Aban 98’ protestors (named after the 23 October-21 November month in the Iranian year 1398) for being a product of foreign interference – from the US of course, but also Saudi Arabia, Israel, ‘monarchists’ and ‘seditionists’. This is ironic given recent western assessments that expensive Israeli and other efforts to persuade Iranians that the IRGC’s adventures in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon are the cause of their domestic grievances are seen to have largely failed. Rather, across the country demonstrators have been focusing on very domestic issues, with middle class protestors joining less traditionally well-off Iranians to ask: ‘how can we survive?”

The authorities have clearly adopted a policy of maximum force to snuff out another threat from the streets. Starting with an internet blackout that helped to stem the protests’ organisation and avert the creation of a popular opposition movement, the security forces have been deployed extensively to break up demonstrations. Advocacy groups like London-based Amnesty International (AI) complain that, despite calls for calm from international organisations and stern words from some other governments, the extent of the crackdown has been under-played. AI on 25 November said the “world must strongly condemn the use of lethal force against protesters as death toll rises”, reporting at least 143 (and probably many more) killed since demonstrations broke out in at least ten provinces. The highest number of deaths have been recorded in Khuzestan (40) and Kermanshah (34) provinces, followed by Tehran (20) and Fars (15), according to AI’s count. It claimed these fatalities had resulted almost entirely from the use of firearms, pointing to the use of lethal force to shoot unarmed protesters from a short distance. Many thousands have also been arrested.

Needless to say, the security forces at the centre of these events are the IRGC, the Naja police force (whose heads have always served as senior Revolutionary Guards) and the paramilitary Basij force (Sazman-e Basij-e Mostazafin, part of the IRGC since 2007). Spokesmen for the leadership include Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, who claimed “we have arrested all these minions and mercenaries” who confessed to working for the Americans. Conservative daily Kayhan has called for hangings. As a result, the population has been cowed and calm appears to have been restored. But reliable information about events is still patchy; the internet has only partially been restored, with mobile phone access still denied as GSN went to press.

What the regime cannot do is accept that popular discontent – emerging from what it long supposed to be its support base – has a real basis, not only in difficult living conditions but also from the inequality running through the system. To be part of the velayat-e faqih system often means a more comfortable life, with huge sums of money being channelled through companies owned and/or linked to the IRGC and clerical families. These complaints were apparent in the protests of December 2017/January 2018 (GSN 1,051/1). Khamenei sounded emollient last February when, to mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution he said Iran was “always flexible and ready to correct its mistakes” (GSN 1,075/1). But the leadership remains confronted by a quandary: any genuine reform is likely to undermine the very structures that keeps the system in power and its leaders and their families wealthy. A few concessions cannot correct this.

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