The street protests that have engulfed Iran since Thursday have rocked Iran’s political establishment. Small protests about economic conditions are not uncommon in the country, but these protests were different, quickly moving on to address more general political grievances and spreading to other cities. They are now the largest anti-regime protests since 2009. The demonstrations had started by attacking the reform-focused government of President Hassan Rouhani and his economic policies. In fact, by all indications, they were started by Rouhani opponents belonging to the regime’s hardline conservative faction — but they quickly grew and changed tack, sometimes getting out of hand.
Both wings of Iran’s official politics, the Reformists and the Conservatives, have been internally divided over their responses to the street protests. Furthermore, as the protests have spread, their responses have also changed. Initially, many reformists called for the constitutional right to protest to be respected, but many have now moved on to question the motives behind the demonstrations. The conservative opponents of Rouhani, on the other hand, started by supporting the protests as a just reaction to the government’s economic policies but were quick to denounce them later on.
One of the most controversial reactions came from Rouhani’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar. “Protest is a right but protesters should know who is guiding them and who their leader is,” she tweeted. Ebtekar also posted evidence that people with Twitter accounts linked to Saudi Arabia and Israel had supported the protests, and also pointed to support from an Iranian self-declared “anti-religion” tweeter based in New York.
Rouhani’s right-hand man, Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, had earlier led the way by dismissing the protests and denying that the economy is in bad shape. Jahangiri’s reaction was echoed by many, though not all, Rouhani-supporting newspapers in the country.
Iran newspaper, which usually reflects the government’s view, went with the dull headline of “National Understanding for Economic Improvement” and quoted Jahangiri. The reformist Etemad headlined a quote by Jahangiri — “They will be hurt themselves” —highlighting the vice president’s warning to his political opponents that the street protests will end up threatening them. Armaane Emrooz, close to the Executives of Construction Party, Jahangiri’s party, adopted a similar headline.
But some pro-Rouhani newspapers backed the protests. Qanoon newspaper went with the headline “People enforce Article 27,” highlighting the article in the Iranian constitution that allows protests as far as the marchers are unarmed and don’t “disrupt the foundations of Islam.” Qanoon also published an article that said: “Inefficiency of government authorities in solving people’s economic problems has led to protests by a section of society.”
Some government figures took a more nuanced line. Hesamedin Ashena, a close advisor of Rouhani known for economically right-wing views, tweeted: “The country faces serious problems in unemployment, high prices, corruption, environment, water shortage, class difference, unequal distortion of the budget and people have the right for their voice to be heard,” but he also added, rather cryptically, “the gangs of conspiracy and deception have proved at least twice that they can fool the masses.”
Ashena also called on “security and police forces” to “face the protests with restraint” before adding: “But, let’s remember that in any country, none of these crises have ever been solved on the streets and by using violence.”
Azar Mansoori, a reformist politician, first tweeted: “Peaceful protest is a legal right of people…The regime has a duty to listen to people’s demands and problems,” while also calling for “calm and strengthening of national reconciliation.” In a second tweet she called for “the social hope” to be protected and warned that criticism of Rouhani from his conservative opponents will lead people away from the regime altogether.
Among the hardliner newspapers, the Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper, known for flashy headlines, went with the simple recommendation to “Be Responsible!” and criticized Jahangiri for his dismissal of the street protests. Javan, which usually reflects the views of the hardline-dominated paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, went with: “People’s economic gatherings and abuse of it by the counter-revolution.” The conservative Mashhad daily Khorasan had a similar headline: “People’s economic protests and its abuse by the opportunists.”
Many are waiting for official reactions from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president whose campaign against corruption recently targeted the influential Larijani family, a conservative clan that is in somewhat of an alliance with Rouhani. An unverified account on Twitter highlighted part of Ahmadinejad’s speech in the southern city of Bushehr on Thursday: “Everyone should be careful. Any tension, clash, wrongdoing and insult should be condemned and has nothing to do with us or the nation.”
Friday prayer leaders around the country, whose line is coordinated by offices close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, generally acknowledged the economic demands but condemned the “infiltration” of protests, although with varying emphasis.
Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardliner prayer leader in Mashhad, said the protests that had started in the city were “rightful” and added that “you shouldn’t make people so fed up that they take to the streets.” But he also warned: “One shouldn’t come out to the streets whenever anyone calls for it. The country’s security matters and our life problems shouldn't become a tool for the enemy’s victory.” He specifically criticized the slogans that targeted the Iranian presence in Syria as “inappropriate.”
In other cities in Khorasan Razavi province, including Mashhad, prayer leaders had different takes. Kazem Tabatabayi, the prayer leader for Kashmar, said the gatherings “used the excuse of high prices” but were really a plot by “the US, the Israelis and the anti-Islam” contingent to “overthrow the regime.” He called on “the government and security forces” to “stand up to these people” and not let “a bunch of no-lifes disrupt the country.”
But while the top figures in both factions seem to be befuddled by the protests, some activists called for reformists to take a different approach.
Foad Shams, a left-wing activist in Karaj who has electorally supported the Rouhani government and his allies, said Rouhani’s “ideologically-tinged neoliberal economics” had led to the current climate.
“If the Reformists had a correct political outlook and a truly people-centered economic perspective instead of their current ideological neoliberalism, they should have by now tried to score concessions in the interest of people, not becoming a mouthpiece by attacking people’s #General-Demonstration”— using the hashtag protesters have deployed to garner support.
The current street protests have mounted a significant challenge to Iran’s established politics, especially since their anti-regime fervor seems to go beyond the agendas of both official factions. In 2009, the mass movement that was suppressed with extraordinary violence essentially supported one wing of the regime, and pitted it against the other. The leader of that movement, former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was a rare figure in the establishment in that he both defended political liberties and stood for economic justice in line with strong revolutionary ideals. This time around, the anger of the protests seem to be rawer and their call for social justice contradicts the economic orthodoxy of both the reformists and the hardliners. How official politics responds to this challenge will play a big role in determining the future — that of the protests, but also that of the country’s key politicians.