Recent images of angry protesters in Teheran swarming the Iranian capital’s historic Grand Bazaar and forcing shopkeepers to close their stalls recalled similar demonstrations that rocked the country at the end of 2017 and the beginning of this year.
But some observers see the most recent expression of frustration with the Islamic Republic as more significant than past mass protests.
Shots were heard on videos circulated on social media from protests in the cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan, and state media showed Teheran banks with broken windows and a demonstrator armed with a rifle. Police fired tear gas as protesters set fire to a bridge, and to a garden surrounding a museum memorial to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
What’s more, the recent demonstrations, while essentially over economic issues, included unprecedented expressions of dissent. Protesters chanted “We don’t want the ayatollahs,” “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei,” as well as, remarkably, “Death to Palestine,” “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon” and “Leave Syria and think of us.”
Remarkable, too, has been the Iranian populace’s apparent waning enthusiasm for the government’s demonization of Israel. A relatively small crowd participated in this year’s ‘Al Quds’ (Jerusalem) Day demonstrations on June 8, and many of those who did attend were apparently part of a government-arranged contingent. Donation boxes for this year’s Ramadan campaign to aid Palestinians in Gaza and Lebanon were reportedly vandalized.
The anger aimed at the Iranian regime was ratcheted up by President Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Iran Deal this past May. Although the agreement remains in place for now between Iran and the other signatories to the deal, and Iran has thus far not resumed its nuclear weapons program, the specter of imminent end of trade with companies who wish to avoid American sanctions looms.
And what it looms over is an already unhealthy economic situation for Iranians. The economic relief that the citizenry expected to experience in the wake of the 2015 deal never materialized. The regime spent billions of the dollars released by the agreement on its proxy war in Syria and to support terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. The local currency, the rial, has fallen to unprecedented levels and Iranians are dealing with the rising cost of food and other essentials, and the disappearance of pensions and life savings.
The regime placed a struggling economy at home at the bottom of a long list of nefarious priorities. And the populace’s recognition of that fact has fueled the unrest — and inspired the protesters’ slogans.
Further exacerbating the anger of Iranians is a chronic water shortage, driven by both natural drought and water mismanagement. It brought farmers and others to the forefront of the most recent protests. Different sectors of the population also took part in recent anti-government demonstrations. Ethnic minorities like Baluch, Azerbaijani and Kurdish citizens marched alongside ethnic Iranian workers and traders.
Iran, of course, was not always a repressive theocracy and global menace. The current regime came into power after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw the Pahlavi dynasty — a reliable ally of both the U.S. and Israel —overthrown in favor of a theocratic Islamic Republic led by Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini.
The generation that wildly welcomed that radical change of orientation in Iran, though, is slowly yielding to a younger one, and that younger one, deprived of personal freedoms and of economic wellbeing, is bristling.
And it is the younger generation that both Israel and the U.S. have targeted on social media to convey anti-regime messages. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote a series of tweets supporting the protesters in Iran and criticizing mass arrests of protesters by the regime. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu posted four videos on such media in which he spoke directly to the Iranian people, encouraging them to continue to protest against the regime.
The Jewish community in Iran has wisely avoided activism of any sort over recent decades and has not been reported to have taken part in the current protests. Yet at a time of upheaval, there is ample reason to worry for their safety, and we must increase our tefillos on their behalf.
For the moment, while the protests are heartening for the critics of the Iranian regime, they, like their predecessors, ended without any apparent effect. And should future expressions of rebellion grow stronger, they are sure to be met with violence by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, under the control of Iran’s de facto dictator, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
We hope, though, that true change is in the Iranian air and that it will flourish peacefully. We commend President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo for their efforts to promote such change. And we are mispallel that our brothers and sisters in Iran will be safe, and be among the many beneficiaries of a return to reason in Iran.