The Iranian government is responding to peaceful protests with batons and bullets. Their brutality and criminal incompetence are galvanizing protestor solidarity and resistance, which might finally prove fatal to the ruling elite.
LONDON — On November 26, Iranian authorities crushed public protests that had been denouncing the state's water policies for a fortnight in and around the city of Isfahan in the center of the country. But while such protests are essentially political, and ultimately the result of four decades of criminal incompetence by the Islamic Republic, local farmers and residents were also specifically demanding their right to water and to the natural environment where they were born.
The November unrest in Isfahan was part of a recent wave of protests against a hated ruling elite. The current government, led by Ebrahim Raisi, has been in power since August of this year, but protests have been sweeping the country since 2017. Iran is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world.
Civil protests met by batons and bullets
In this instance, the farmers and ordinary civilians protested peacefully and civilly on the dried bed of the Zayanderud, the city's lifeblood river that has dried up after drought and diversion. But the Iranian government could not even tolerate this. It responded with batons and bullets. The result was a "bloody Friday" for Isfahan and hundreds of people detained and injured.
Younger generations have even taken to using 'reformist' as an insult for a deceitful individual
While there are no precise figures for arrests, reports from people on the ground and rights groups indicate that more than 250 people held, while 40 may have sustained irreparable eye injuries after being shot in the face with rubber bullets. The regime's aim in using pump-action firearms was to frighten but also to mark individuals out with face injuries at the risk of depriving them of their sight!
And yet the public response has remained civil, taking the form of online campaigns to show the state's violence and to voice support for protesters and the injured. The campaign took off after the mother of Pejman Qolipur and Navid Behbudi, two youngsters killed in protests in November 2019, patched her eyes symbolically in support of the people of Isfahan.
Several film directors, actresses and mothers of protesters have boldly joined the campaign, in spite of possible reprisals.
Ruling minority, disaffected majority
This regime is as fragile as it has ever been thanks to, among other factors, structural inefficiency, lack of broad support and international isolation.
Two decades ago, the regime brought out a "reforms" project, which was intended to be a trump card to prolong the revolutionary banquet and the pickings that the kleptocratic elite enjoy. Its shameless abuse of terms such as "popular sovereignty" and "dialogue among civilizations," a term introduced by former President Mohammad Khatami, has left the very idea of reformism in Iran in a state of abject ridicule. Younger generations have even taken to using "reformist" as an insult for a deceitful individual – just like those politicians who made promises to Iranians for over 20 years to win their votes, as the country sank into ruin. If this theatrical regime were to field another "reformist" president, he can certainly expect a few million curses rather than votes.
Since 2017, Iranian protesters have been chanting "Game Over" to both reformists and their conservative opponents. By refusing to vote in 2021, they left reformists and conservatives practically ashen-faced. Abstentions far outnumbered the votes cast for the elected president, often dubbed the Death Judge. For months now, people have been mocking reformists as the "3%" faction.
It is a mild response considering the terms reformists and conservatives have used for ordinary Iranians, such as yobs, rioters, or "foreign agents." They like to call the violent suppression of protests "clearing the streets." If people keep returning to protest, it is because they know reforms no longer mean anything in Iran.
What do people have to lose?
While terror has been a tool used by the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979, it may no longer be as effective as it once was. People have been unusually brazen for some time now, which may be the "tool" to send the regime over the precipice. People's brazenness may be a sign of desperation. In protests of recent years, they have been heard shouting, "We've nothing to lose." An online video recently showed an employee of the municipality of Khorramshahr, a port city in the east of the country, saying he could not afford to buy his daughter the simplest cake for her birthday.
Municipal authorities denied their employees were hard-up, claiming this person, named as Fuad Saadipur, didn't work with them. But Saadipur uploaded live pictures of his workplace on Instagram – saying he didn't care if he was fired, in spite of several months of unpaid wages.
The regime needs to divide Iranians to keep ruling as it has for 40 years
A consensus is taking shape among Iranians that they can only protect their rights with protests and nationwide, cross-sectoral solidarity. This solidarity was visible when protesting factory workers call for the liberation of detained teachers, or when teachers protesting in the northern Golestan province on December 2 bandaged their eyes in solidarity with the injured protesters of Isfahan.
The clerical regime is afraid of the potential scale of this solidarity. Its fear is evident in its reactions. In Isfahan, authorities imposed a curfew on the Zayanderud riverbed to prevent the public from holding congregational prayers there, which protesters had sought. The judiciary in Isfahan warned people not to gather at all, and urged them to report anyone "suspect" to the police.
Just six days after the suppression of these protests, thousands of teachers demonstrated in 60 districts, including Isfahan, in spite of official threats.
The regime needs to divide Iranians to keep ruling as it has for 40 years. Indeed, is the uneven distribution of investments in regions its surreptitious bid to pit regional and ethnic groups against each other? It likes to play on personal and isolated needs and problems. But while people do grapple with personal and financial problems, experience has shown that they know now that the root of so many problems, regardless of socio-economic, geographical or cultural elements, is the Islamic Republic. And the first and only step toward a solution is resistance based on nationwide solidarity.
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