Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance
Iran has been accused of destabilising the Middle East for some time, with the U.S. its chief opponent and Washington’s ties to Saudi Arabia adding fuel to a region faced with significant social and political challenges.
Now the republic faces its own protest movement which has seen tens of thousands take to the streets across Iran calling for an end to corruption and rampant price increases.
Pro-government protestors have responded, and in street battles, at least twelve people were reported to have died by New Years’ Day.
Iran has long backed sectarian movements as it sees itself as a Shiite inspired balance to Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalism. Iran has also backed Hezbollah fighters in Syria who are supporting the Assad government while Tehran has also begun to flex its diplomatic and military muscle after sanctions were lifted.
"When you look at the footage coming out Iran, is young people -- many of them were born 20 years after the revolution of 1979, they have no sense of what it is this regime does that reflects what they want," - Alex Vatanka Iranian expert, Middle East Institute.
The core of the Iranian military system is its Revolutionary Guard and protestors have targeted this organisation and blamed them for what they call oppression and corruption. Tehran also backs the Taliban in Afghanistan in a formalised agreement in 2014 and has refused to punish al-Qaeda operatives on its own territory.
Western Intelligence agencies have followed Iranian affairs closely, and were directly involved in decades of abuse by leaders like the Shah of Iran and other west-leaning military dictators.
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran began exporting its revolutionary theology abroad and immediately began supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the Arab Spring and collapse of many states in the region “..proved to be a game changer for the Islamic Republic,” says a NATO report published in 2016.
And in 2015 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressed the UN and suggested that his country could cooperate on regional issues.
“Considering the fact that this deal has created an objective basis and set an appropriate model, it can serve as a basis for foundational change in the region,” he said.
Since 2011 Iran has sought a more assertive policy in the Middle East.
Iran supports Shia movements as a matter of course, and is known as the self-declared defender of Shia causes. For example it has pushed for political change in Bahrain where there’s a Shia majority but these people are ruled by a Sunni monarchy which is in the minority. Iran has also exported men and material to the Shia-oriented Houthi movement in Yemen which is fighting against Saudi Arabia.
But its at home that this policy is now facing severe headwinds. While there is a huge Shia majority there are many Sunni’s who have experienced institutional discrimination.
On June 7th 2017, suicide bombers attacked the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran and killed more than a dozen people. Tehran immediately blamed Saudi Arabia although the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
“Terror-sponsoring despots threaten to bring the fight to our homeland. Proxies attack what their masters despise most: the seat of democracy,” Tweewed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the event.
With Tehran ploughing billions of dollars into its theological militarisation, the home front has become its latest battleground. President Hassan Rouhani has been actively seeking military solutions and expenditure on the military has been rising as the nation faces economic headwinds.
It remains that Tehran’s internal politics are its weak point which is being exploited by protestors across the country. Spontaneous protests began on Thursday 28th December 2017 in Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims.
This followed a rally by hard-line supporters of the Republics conservative clerics. State TV also pointed at outside interference in the protests.
“Counterrevolution groups and foreign media are continuing their organized efforts to misuse the people’s economic and livelihood problems and their legitimate demands to provide an opportunity for unlawful gatherings and possibly chaos,” it said in an editorial.
But economic hardship prevails in the Republic where unemployment is high and inflation caused egg and poultry prices to rise by up to 40 percent.
With at least twelve people killed as of Monday 1st January 2018 in the protests, there is some confusion about the real reason for Iran’s worst civilian uprising since 2009.
Protestors are chanting anti-government slogans against the country's foreign policy, such as "Death to Rouhani", "Forget Palestine", "Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” while also clearly against the rising cost of living.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that the youth have a right to peaceful protest, but politically Iran is unstable.
Waiting in the wings are two opposition movements led by Maryam Rajavi who has already called the protests the “death knell for the corrupt dictatorship of mullahs, and the rise of democracy, justice and popular sovereignty.”
Maryam Rajavi - opposition leader
Her movement called the National Council of Resistance and its ally, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, have constantly encouraged protests.
She has repeatedly warned global leaders about the growing crisis in her country saying the political leadership has stopped listening to the people.
“No concession is going to dissuade the mullahs from continuing their ominous objectives,” she said.
“Let us recall the day after the 1938 Munich Pact, when Sir Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war”. Let us not allow a repetition of the Munich experience by nuclear-armed mullahs. The regime ruling Iran is a medieval theocracy that lacks the capacity to reform.”
Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute has warned that its the youth face joblessness and are growing more angry.
“When you look at the footage coming out Iran, is young people -- many of them were born 20 years after the revolution of 1979, they have no sense of what it is this regime does that reflects what they want,” she told Voice of America.
“They have no historic memory of 1979, what was there before 1979, they don't have any memory of the Iran-Iraq war -- all they know is that they go to university, they work hard to get an education or do whatever it is to lift themselves up in life and there are so many different obstacles in their path.”
A time-line of Iranian political change :
1921 Reza Khan who is an officer in Persia’s Cossack Brigade calls himself shah of Persia after a coup against the government of the Qajar Dynasty. He begins modernising the country and plans a national education system as well as new railways and proper healthcare.
1935 Persia is officially renamed Iran. By the mid-’30s, Reza Khan’s approach causes dissent as he displays dictatorial traits.
1941 Iran’s British-controlled oil interests are largely maintained by German engineers and technicians, and Khan refuses to expel German citizens despite a request by Britain. In September 1941, following British and Soviet occupation of western Iran, Reza Shah is forced out of power. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, succeeds him on the throne.
1949 An attempt on the shah’s life supposedly ordered by the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party leads to Shah Pahlavi’s powers being increased.
1951 Nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq tries to nationalise the British-owned oil industry but the shah opposes Mossadeq and removes him from power. Mossadeq manages to gain control and the shah leaves Iran.
1953 The shah returns to Iran when General Fazlollah Zahedi overthrows Mossadeq in an August coup d’etat with CIA backing.
1957 U.S. and Israeli intelligence officers work with Iran to set up SAVAK which is an Iranian intelligence organization and is later blamed for the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners as well as suppression of dissent.
1963 The shah implements “The White Revolution,” a campaign of social and economic Westernization that is met with intense opposition. Ayatollah Khomeini is arrested in one of many crackdowns on the shah’s opponents but by the late 1960s the shah relies regularly on SAVAK to quell dissidence violently.
1976 The shah replaces the Islamic calendar with an “imperial” calendar, beginning with the founding of the Persian Empire but the shah’s growing number of critics see this as anti-Islamic.
1978 Iranians begin rioting and mass demonstrations and strikes begin in protest against the shah’s authoritarian rule and he imposes martial law.
1979 January 16
The shah flees Iran amid intensifying unrest.
February 1 Ayatollah Khomeini returns from France where he was exiled and he encourages the revolution.
April 1 Under Khomeini’s guidance, Iran declares itself a theocratic republic guided by Islamic principles, and a referendum is held to name it the Islamic Republic of Iran.
November 4 Islamic students storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take 52 American employees hostage and demand that the shah return from receiving medical treatment in the United States to face trial in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini applauds their actions. The hostage situation ignites a crisis between the United States and Iran.
1980 April Iran and the U.S sever diplomatic ties.
The shah dies in exile in Egypt.
September Iraq invades Iran after years of disagreements over territory. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announces his intention to reclaim the Shatt al Arab waterway, an eight-year war breaks out.
1981 Following negotiations mediated by Algeria, the U.S. hostages are released after 444 days of captivity.
1985 The United States tries to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of seven American hostages being held by Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon in an incident called the Iran-Contra scandal.
1988 July American navy vessle USS Vincennes shoots down an Iranian civilian plane killing all 290 passengers and crew. The U.S. apologizes and agrees to financial compensation for the victims families, saying the civilian plane was mistaken for an attacking military jet.
August Iran accepts United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, leading to a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War.
1989 February Indian author Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” causes uproar among fundamentalist Muslims, and Ayatollah Khomeini places a fatwa or death sentence on the writer, saying his book is “blasphemous against Islam.”
June Khomeini dies. An elected body of senior clerics called the Assembly of Experts chooses the outgoing president of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, to succeed Khomeini.
August National Assembly speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani becomes president.
1993 Rafsanjani wins reelection.
1995 The United States places oil and trade sanctions on Iran, accusing the country of sponsoring terrorism, committing human rights abuses and of trying to sabotage the Arab-Israeli peace process.
(Ali) Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani is elected to the presidency in a landslide victory amidst his pledges of political and social reforms.
2001 President Khatami wins re-election.
2000 Pro-reform candidates and allies of President Khatami win 189 of the 290 seats in parliament, setting the stage for reformers to control the legislature for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
2002 American President George W. Bush refers to Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” saying the country is actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The speech is met with anger in Iran.
2003 The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran admits to plutonium production while there is no evidence that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. Iran agrees to more rigorous U.N. inspections of nuclear facilities.
2004 Conservatives reclaim control of Iran’s parliament after controversial elections that were boycotted by reformists and then Iran’s government says it may re-start its nuclear program.
2005 The hardline Islamic mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeats one of Iran’s elder statesmen in presidential elections.
2006 Ahmadinejad contacts President Bush and calls for ways to ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear program while ignoring U.N. deadlines to halt uranium enrichment activities.
2007 Ahmadinejad visits the United States and addresses the U.N. General Assembly. But the United States imposes fresh economic sanctions against Iran. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate report finds that Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 but by enriching uranium, could do so at a point in the future.
2008 The International Atomic Energy Agency releases a report saying Iran’s suspected research into the development of nuclear weapons remained “a matter of serious concern.” European Union nations agree to impose new sanctions against Iran.
2009 Ahmadinejad is declared the landslide victor in presidential elections but this sparks protests by supporters of candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who unsuccessfully appealed the results to Iran’s Guardian Council.