In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. After a wave of economic protests swept major cities in Iran, President Rouhnai said Sunday that people have the right to protest, but those demonstrations should not make the public "feel concerned about their lives and security." (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Presidency Office via AP

Change is the word on Iranian minds

Unrest continues in Iran and with it the death toll mounts after authorities used excessive force to quell anti-government demonstrations over the past few days. Iranian state TV reported that 10 people had lost their lives, the real number may be many more, a tragedy compounded by the confusing messages coming out of Tehran. Hassan Rouhani, Iran's embattled president, said demonstrators had the right to have their voices heard but should not air their grievances in public. When they did, the authorities fired tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition into protesting crowds. The attacks were followed by arrests. Whatever small olive branch Mr Rouhani had apparently extended was snatched away by those tasked with enforcing his supposedly conciliatory statements.

The protests were triggered by widespread apprehension at the country’s declining economic situation. They were fuelled by a growing sense of injustice at the silencing of any form of credible opposition to the government and, indeed, by the crushing collective understanding that the sanctions-relief the nuclear deal was supposed to bring has only served to enrich and embolden the elite. The trickle-down effect has been non-existent. Unemployment and inflation are rampant. Corruption is rife. The bounty has been shared among the very few. Most tellingly, while elsewhere in the region economies and opportunities are opening up, the Iranian regime is doubling down.

The fractures were there for all to see before the country's presidential vote last May. Poll data collated from citizens across Iran painted a gloomy picture. Voters were detached and disaffected. They viewed the ballot – in which Mr Rouhani secured a second term – as little more than a charade. Now the indifference has hardened into anger and frustration. The economy is creaking and the president, elected ostensibly on a ticket of fiscal reform, has done nothing to change the narrative for average Iranians. For too long, despite obvious problems at home, the regime has been focused on stirring up trouble in the region and sponsoring terror groups. This week's protests expose, once more, the folly of that narrow-minded and disastrous worldview.

Another unwelcome wave of state-sponsored violence is likely to be the next response by the regime. The elite in Tehran will be concerned that there is no obvious face of resistance to engage with or, more likely, to beat into submission. This is a grass-roots movement that has spread across the country, driven by rumbling dissatisfaction and born without a discernible manifesto beyond a burning desire for change. Neither does it have obvious roots in youth. As The National reported, more than half the population is between 25 and 64. This is not a clarion call of young people, it is the screaming voice of a nation. The Iranian elite must start to listen.


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