By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
The increasing frustration and discontent among the Iranian people over the theocratic establishment in their country is a major concern for the ruling clerics, who fear that another nationwide uprising will threaten their hold on power.
Lately, many people in the province of Isfahan have risen up against the regime. Tens of thousands have joined farmers and poured into the streets criticizing government officials over water shortages.
People were heard chanting: “The people of Isfahan will rather die than give in to disgrace,” “Zayandeh Rud (river) is our undeniable right,” and “We will not go home until we get our water back.”
The regime does not appear to have a practical solution for the water shortages as it continues to use a significant portion of the nation’s water resources on government projects. In the face of the protests, the minister of energy admitted: “We are not in a position to provide their water needs.”
Instead, the regime resorted to its modus operandi of employing brute force to crack down on protesters. Police and security forces used tear gas and batons and fired shotguns at them, which resulted in hundreds of people being injured, while there were also many arrests. Mohammad-Reza Mir-Heidari, the chief of Isfahan’s police, also threatened to deal forcefully with protesters.
It is important to recall that the regime deployed the same strategy during previous uprisings. In the final days of 2017, protests broke out in Iran’s second-most-populous city, Mashhad, and immediately spread to dozens of others, with democratic change the rallying cry.
Another uprising in November 2019 presented the clerical regime with an even greater challenge. Terrified by the breadth and organized nature of these uprisings, authorities opened fire on crowds, killing approximately 1,500 people.
The protests are not limited to farmers concerned about water shortages. In recent weeks, retirees and pensioners have staged more than a dozen protests, each spanning multiple cities. The government has offered little or no response to their demands for an economic policy that shrinks the gap between their stagnant incomes and the rising cost of living. As a result, the most recent of these protests adopted slogans such as: “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.”
Similar slogans were adopted during protests that focused attention on the regime’s theft of people’s money invested in the stock market. For those who have lost their savings and joined the massed ranks of impoverished Iranians, it is clear that the regime’s graft permeates the political hierarchy and no one has any interest in reforming the system.
Many people in Iran are indeed suffering financially. For the past 10 years, the unemployment rate in the country has been in the double digits. Although Iran has an educated youth population, which makes up more than 60 percent of the total population, almost 30 percent of them are without jobs. More than 40 percent of the population, approximately 32 million citizens, live below the poverty line.
People are also frustrated with the regime because of its egregious human rights record. Human rights activists, defenders and lawyers have played an important role in disclosing the violations taking place in the country.
The Iranian regime remains one of the worst abusers of human rights in the world. The situation continues to worsen under the leadership of President Ebrahim Raisi, who is known as the “Butcher of Tehran.” According to the latest report by international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, Tehran ranks top in the world in terms of the number of executions per capita.
More importantly, the political nature of the dissatisfaction with the regime should not be disregarded. People are robustly opposing the ruling clerics’ authoritarianism and despotism. That is why many risk their lives by chanting “Death to (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei,” a crime punishable with the death penalty. Other common chants include “Shame on you Khamenei, step down from power” and “Death to the dictator.”
People have also been seen during previous protests risking their lives by tearing down banners for Iran’s previous and current supreme leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei.
In addition, many people appear to vehemently stand against the regime’s foreign policies, as the following chants have become popular in the country: “Forget about Palestine, forget about Gaza, think about us,” “Death to Hezbollah,” and “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead.”
Western policymakers, and the entire international community, should make it clear that they support any effort by the Iranian people to push back against state repression and advocate for democracy. Only the immediate and overwhelming threat of a coordinated international response can guarantee that the bloodshed from future uprisings will not be worse than that which occurred during November 2019.
If international policymakers offer no such threat, they will be turning their backs on the Iranian people, thereby solidifying the position of a nuclear-keen theocratic dictatorship that is desperately struggling to find a lifeline.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh