On June 28, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explicitly threatened a harsh crackdown on dissent and proposed limits on the internet and cyberspace, recalling the bloody crackdown on dissent during the 1980 Iran-Iraq war. 1988.
His comments, which followed two similar speeches in June, came in response to a growing pace of protests over deteriorating living conditions in Iran.
The latest iteration of the protest movement began five years ago as Iranians faced mounting economic hardship and hopes for reform dwindled. This wave of protests died down during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, according to Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), a European-based entity that receives information from a network of activists across Iran, there have been thirty-five protests and strikes across Iran from June 11 to June 18 only. From June 25 to July 1, HRANA said there were still two dozen protests across the country.
Khamenei, who has been in power for 33 years, blamed foreign “conspiracies” for the unrest. In a June 4 speech that marked the death of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he tried to downplay the protests while indicating concern for the regime’s future in an unprecedented way. Although he said the Islamic Republic would never be overthrown, the Supreme Leader made direct references to cases in which “the deposed ruling family returned to power after a few years”. He explicitly pointed to the monarchists and the possibility of their return to power, even though he called them reactionaries.
The ruler’s threats and the brutal actions of the security forces failed to deter the unrest. On June 6, the teachers’ union called for a strike and protests outside the education department on June 16. Security forces arrested dozens of teachers and activists in numerous provinces, including sixty in Fars, thirty-one in Kordistan, ten in Qazvin, and six in Gilan. In the capital, Tehran, more than fifty people were arrested, according to HRANA. Yet tens of thousands of teachers went to forty-six cities, including the thirty-one provincial capitals, on June 16 to protest against low salaries, precarious social benefits and the release of their colleagues. The Haft-Tappeh Sugar Cane Workers’ Union, the largest in Khuzestan province, which regularly protests against unsafe conditions and unpaid wages, issued a statement backing the teachers’ demands and calling for the immediate release workers and union activists in addition to arrested teachers. .
Student protests have also increased, despite unprecedented levels of repression. The colleges had been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic and reopened in May. Since then, dozens of students have been summoned for questioning and many have been expelled in just two weeks after reopening.
The unrest has clearly shaken Khamenei. In another speech on June 12, he asked Iranians to “show restraint, be patient and be hopeful for the future,” although he offered no new policies. He blamed the protests on “the enemy’s soft war against the Iranian people” and “enemy goals of provoking the nation”.
Khamenei’s third speech in which he mentioned the protests, on June 28, had a more angry tone. Addressing an audience that included the head of the judiciary and other senior officials, he openly threatened Iranians with the same brutality the regime displayed in the early days after the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war. . During those years, thousands of dissidents were summarily executed and tens of thousands imprisoned. The wave of executions peaked in the summer of 1988 when then-leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 political prisoners within months, known as the massacre of 1988.
Khamenei threatened the nation with a brutal and violent large-scale crackdown “similar to 1981” – when mass executions began – and called on the judiciary to “face cyberspace”. These [websites] worry people, they corrupt people’s minds… Current laws can be used for this purpose. If there are no laws, pass one,” he said in reference to the so-called Internet Protection Bill, draconian legislation that has been pending for months at the moment. parliament. Khamenei has warned that a free internet compromises the “psychological safety of society”, using similar reasoning to when he ordered the closure of dozens of reformist newspapers in the late 1990s.
Yet despite the obvious threat, there were several protests by workers demanding better pay on June 28. The next day, pensioners in Ahvaz and other towns took to the streets, demanding an increase in their pensions in the face of soaring inflation and better medical insurance coverage. . Meanwhile, dozens of people who lost their savings to Cryptoland, a private cryptocurrency investment firm whose assets were frozen two years ago, gathered outside the office of the Attorney General of Tehran to demand the return of their money.
Iranians take to the streets not only for economic and social demands, but also for social and cultural reasons. On June 29, supporters of the Esteghlal football team protested against the club’s management for not renewing the contract of team captain Voria Ghafouri, who has recently spoken openly in favor popular demands.
Climate-related disasters, such as floods and drought, have also triggered unrest. In this hot Iranian summer, however, even small grievances seem enough to persuade people to take to the streets. In mid-June, for example, a few small businesses and shops in part of Tehran closed in protest against a new tax law. The next day, the protest turned into a general strike by other businesses in several cities of Fars, Markazi and Khuzestan provinces and other parts of downtown Tehran.
Sometimes the protests have led to concrete results, such as when demands by small businesses were accepted not to tax their point-of-sale transactions. The regime was also forced to give in to the demands of teachers, workers and pensioners, by implementing a rating system that would raise salaries by 60% in line with inflation. This kind of concession has rarely happened in the history of the Islamic Republic.
The most significant feature of the protests is their non-violent nature and their unwavering determination for gradual but fundamental change. As Iran’s history over the past hundred years has repeatedly seen, city streets can be the site of powerful movements that can change the nature of government. At present, the regime still has the upper hand, but there have been occasions, such as recently in Tabriz, where protesters managed to push back the security forces peacefully.
The demise of the Islamic Republic has been wrongly predicted many times over the past four decades. The turning point would be if the security forces repeatedly failed to quell the protests and perhaps even join them.
The author, who is familiar with the Iranian political scene, was granted anonymity to share candid observations.