Store owners at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar closed their shops on Monday June 25, in protest at the dramatic rise in the foreign currency exchange rate which adversely affected Iran’s currency market and made prices unaffordable for would-be purchasers. This came after the currency exchange rate rose to a record high of 90,000 Iranian riyals to one US dollar, with that rate rising by 10,000 riyals within a single day.
Despite the regime’s efforts to blame the economic crisis on US sanctions, the people, who have been protesting sporadically since December last year before the sanctions were imposed, are no longer letting the regime off the hook so easily Even the arrest of thousands of demonstrators and a spate of executions on fabricated charges such as ‘enmity to God’ have not stopped the demonstrations from growing.
The Iranian leadership’s desperation became clearer on Tuesday when the Chief Justice of Iran, Sadegh Larijani threatened merchants in Tehran who protested the previous day against the spiralling inflation, with execution if they did not back down.
Larijani used a speech to judicial officials to send a bold threat to the protesters, saying, “I’m warning you. Listen well. Take the cotton out of your ears and open your eyes. These actions against the country’s economic order are punishable by execution—if found to be on the level of ‘corruption on earth”—or up to 20 years in prison and the confiscation of all possessions.”
Larijani’s threats were apparently ineffective, with the protesters resuming their demonstrations again on Wednesday.
A number of prominent Iranian figures have urged massive reforms and even the dismantling of the regime to avert the possibility of the protests, which have grown sporadically since last December, from spiralling into a full-scale civil war or leading to foreign intervention. Leading lawyer and human rights activist, Qasim Shole Sadi, called on the Supreme Leader to step down and hand over power to the Iranian people before it is too late.
Sadi wrote on Twitter with reference to US President Donald Trump’s insistence that the regime renegotiate the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, “Mr. Khamenei, this path is leading to the collapse of the regime; whether you accept Trump’s conditions, or you want to fight with him or you suppress the people’s protests, the result will be regime change by an external actor. There is a single remaining tool which is the ceding of power to the opposition backed by the people peacefully.”
Video footage posted online showed police firing tear gas in a bid to disperse the protesters who gathered in front of the parliament chanting slogans like “Death to the dictator.” This was a clear reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The move came the day after protests broke out in the capital’s largest bazaar specializing in cell phones, with two of the major cell phone retailers forced to close as a result.
Amid the mounting resentment over the economic situation, clashes broke out on Monday between dozens of young men and security forces in the center of the capital. Other videos posted on social media sites showed more clashes between protesters and the police in Tehran.
What is happening?
The demonstrations and protests that first broke out across Tehran on Sunday were a reaction to unprecedented fluctuations in the exchange rate, fanning already widespread fears of total economic collapse.
Although the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), which is close to the Rouhani administration, reported on Monday that the government would be announcing the establishment of a third exchange rate pegged at between 60,000 to 65,000 riyals to the US dollar shortly, this failed to appease public fears.
To tackle the worsening currency crisis which the regime blames on recent US sanctions, the government banned financial exchange services from buying or selling foreign currency; this move did not stop currency trading, however, but simply moved it to the black market, bringing corresponding additional risks and volatility.
The first protests and strikes by workers against these latest economic woes broke out in the port of Ghnawa in the predominantly Arab Ahwaz region; these were rapidly followed by similar strike action in the capital Tehran in rare demonstrations that brought the market to a halt as all shops and civil service offices were closed to protest the incompetence of administration officials and the government in dealing with the rapidly spiralling situation.
Videos uploaded to social media showed demonstrators chanting slogans both against rising prices and the Iranian regime’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, with thousands of protesters chanting “Leave Syria alone, think of our own.” This demonstration broke out on Monday evening despite regime forces using tear gas and live ammunition against protesters the previous day to crush the demonstrations.
Other Iranians have held distinct kinds of protests, with one group launching a campaign to stop people purchasing new Iranian cars to shut down the country’s car manufacturing industry and put pressure on the government after it closed several Iranian spare parts manufacturers, preferring to outsource this part of the process.
Some have expressed concern at the possible outbreak of a full revolution against the Iranian regime, which refuses to abandon its belligerent and costly foreign expansionist policy in the region, where it has spent tens of billions of dollars in supporting numerous extremist sectarian militias and terror groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as helping to fund the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This massive expenditure by the regime has added to public anger in Iran where poverty and repression have been steadily worsening in recent years.
These latest protests also spread to the cities of Shahriar, Karaj, Qeshm, Bandar Abbas and Mashhad, with protesters taking to the streets and chanting slogans which mixed complaints about the economic crisis with calls for the downfall of the theocratic regime such as “Death to the dictator” and “Death to the principle of Velayet-e Faqih”, with references respectively to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the ‘Leadership of the Jurist’ theocratic creed which is the regime’s foundation. The regime’s prohibitively costly intervention in Syria and the ruinous costs of this to Iranians was another subject of the protesters’ anger, with demonstrators chanting “Leave Syria and think about our situation”.
The new US administration has adopted a hawkish stance towards the Iranian regime, with President Trump regularly voicing his disapproval of his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran and vowing throughout his presidential campaign to scrap it once he came to office. White House officials and other Trump allies have regularly expressed a desire for regime change in Iran, reportedly urging the President to pursue this policy, citing increased rates of terrorism and regional instability, with the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday calling Iran the greatest threat in Syria.
Some of the biggest foreign businesses which had operated in Iran – including France’s oil giant Total and its PSA car manufacturers, owners of the Peugeot and Citröen brands –suspended planned projects in Iran over fears of US sanctions.
Repression and woes
The economic sanctions were lifted after the deal was implemented in 2016, but President Trump announced on May 8 of this year that the US was abandoning it. This comes as part of an ongoing US effort to curb Iran’s regional expansionism, with the regime widely seen as using the deal to enable this policy.
The Iranian government has sought to put pressure on the P5+1 EU member countries which insist on continuing with the deal to ensure a continuation of desperately needed trade and investment, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei already threatening to resume uranium enrichment if the EU countries fail to guarantee oil sales and European banks fail to safeguard trade with Iran. The US government is equally intent on forcing the European countries to withdraw from the deal. On Tuesday, the Trump administration ratcheted up the pressure further, issuing an ultimatum to the P5+1 EU member countries, instructing them to cut all imports of Iranian oil from November or face severe penalties. According to a senior State Department official, President Trump is unlikely to offer any exemptions on this latest step.
Although many Iranians hoped initially that the 2015 deal would usher in a new age of prosperity and greater freedoms in the country, this optimism quickly faded as the economic crisis continued to worsen, while domestic repression increased, with public anger rising as the regime used the massive sums of money released under the terms of the deal to fund its regional wars.
Public discontent was further exacerbated by the closure of a number of Iranian banks and finance houses in 2017, mostly owned or backed by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), without any warning or compensation for savers, many of whom had deposited their life savings with these institutions, believing them to be safe since they were nominally backed by the regime. Thousands of Iranians, already struggling to survive, were left penniless.
These tensions came to a head in December 2017, with protests over the economic crisis, worsening repression and a rapidly growing environmental crisis coming together to form a perfect storm of public anger and disillusionment, bubbling over into massive public demonstrations which swept across more than 70 cities. Although these protests were the biggest since the ‘Green Movement’ protests’ that followed the 2009 presidential elections, there are crucial differences. The demonstrations in 2009 were largely limited to Tehran and mostly amongst politically active young people wanting political reforms. The protests in December 2017, which have continued to grow ever since, have united people across the whole social spectrum in Iran, with the protesters’ anger primarily directed at the theocratic regime itself and at the previously sacrosanct Supreme Leader rather than at the government or other organs of the state which he supervises and commands.
Despite the regime’s forces reacting with their customary brutality, using tear gas, cannons and live ammunition to attack protesters to crush the demonstrations as they did in 2009, this has failed to quell the demonstrations, which are still continuing across the country. As the economy continues to spiral downwards, some now suspect that the end of the ‘Islamic Republic’ regime may be close at hand.