By Edward Carney
In the Iranian capital city of Tehran, the year 2018 ended amidst protests and clashes between student activists and security forces. Voice of America News reported that about 200 protesters had gathered on Monday for the third consecutive day of demonstrations stemming from a bus crash that killed 10 people and brought renewed attention to systematic disregard for safety measures and issues of public welfare in general.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran added in its own reporting that protests at Azad University, where eight of the victims were students, had quickly spawned solidarity demonstrations at other educational institutions and in Tehran’s Enghelab Square. The NCRI indicated that the latest single-issue rallies were folded into a large-scale protests movement that began with a mass uprising in the closing days of 2017 and continued with range of protests and labor strikes in various localities throughout 2018.
The continuity among all of these demonstrations was reflected in the reported recurrence of slogans from the nationwide uprising. According to the NCRI, students were heard to chant such slogans on Sunday and Monday, including: “Have no fear, we’re all together,” “neither threats nor prison can deter us,” and “death to the dictator.” The latter slogan refers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and has been cited, seemingly above all others, to suggest that the ultimate goal of a great many protests in 2018 was to facilitate a wholesale change of government.
A more immediate goal of the Azad University protests was reportedly to encourage the firing of Ali Akbar Velayati, who is the chairman of the university’s board of trustees but is also among the closest advisors to the supreme leader. Insofar as a small number of officials wield outsized influence over a wide array of industries and social phenomena in Iran, the country’s activist population is apparently quick to blame individual incidents like the recent bus crash on the overall structure of the Iranian regime.
This logic has been similarly applied to economic hardships in the Islamic Republic, where large-scale devaluation of the national currency has exacerbated issues of poverty and inflation in recent months. Although Tehran has sought to blame ongoing economic trends on Western conspiracies and a small set of scapegoats in the financial sector, participants in the 2018 protests have largely rejected this narrative by maintaining anti-government protests and associated worker strikes in the face of both government propaganda and crackdowns by security forces.
The Iranian regime’s ongoing reliance on such crackdowns was evident in the student protests the brought 2018 to an end. There, security forces reportedly fired tear gas into crowds of demonstrators and erected fencing in a mostly unsuccessful effort to prevent demonstrators from assembling or spilling into the streets. However, reports of clashes between security forces and protesters amidst the latest demonstrations have so far been subdued in comparison to many reports from protests earlier in 2018.
Last January, for instance, when the nationwide uprising was still in full-swing, as many as 50 protesters were shot dead in the streets, and more than a dozen others were identified as having been tortured to death while in police custody. Judiciary officials also warned of potential death sentences for participants in the uprising, as well as for participants in particularly disruptive labor rights protests.
This sort of “heavy-handed response” by security forces and the judiciary were also highlighted by Al-Monitor on Monday in a report on the political fallout and worsening unrest from water scarcity throughout the Islamic Republic, where government authorities have been repeatedly accused of mismanaging natural resources. The report provided details of some of the political infighting that surrounds that mismanagement, and it predicted that authorities would continue to propagate these internal conflicts in lieu of seriously addressing the concerns of communities affected by drought.
Amidst these conditions, Al-Monitor notes, “the continually unresolved tension could serve as a catalyst by fueling fury at different social levels,” leading to the continuation into 2019 of the popular unrest that defined so much of the previous year. And with the Iranian regime being aware of this, it can be expected to continue relying on a “heavy-handed response” to protests over various unresolved issues. According to Al-Monitor, demonstrations related to water scarcity alone produced 20 different clashes between citizens and security forces over a single 140-day period in 2018.
With that year now over, there is no immediate indication of a change in the trends that led to these clashes or to the underlying calls for “death to the dictator.”
Political commentary on Iranian social media seems to reflect sustained awareness of this fact. On Tuesday, a report by the International Business Times called attention to such online contributions to the unrest that closed out the year on the streets of Tehran. It quoted one Twitter user as referencing last week’s bus crash in the context of criticizing the regime’s misplaced priorities and emphasis on cultural repression over the physical well-being of its people.
“Buses turn over, planes crash, ships sink... no one is dismissed,” the individual wrote before pointing out that it took only “a few seconds” for authorities to snap into action and fire a regional director of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting after network violated the country’s censorship rules. IRIB apparently failed to edit out a brief sex scene when airing a 2009 Jackie Chan film – a mistake that the IB Times report described as a “big deal” in a country where “men and women cannot even hold hands on screen.”
In addition to the regional director’s firing and the reprimand of several other employees, IRIB head Aliasgari Ali Aksari also ordered a thorough investigation and promised to “seriously deal with the offenders and report them to the relevant authorities.” Meanwhile, there has been no indication so far of a serious government response to protesters’ demands for improved transportation safety measures and accountability for last week’s fatal bus crash.