Iranian lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi said on Tuesday that around 3,700 people have been arrested during the crackdown on anti-government protesters, a number far higher than Tehran’s official count of 450.
Sadeghi said it was difficult to obtain an accurate count because “several security organizations had made the arrests.” He thought somewhere between 40 and 68 of the detainees are students. At least one detainee at the notorious Evin prison has died, and activists have heard rumors of others.
“In some cases, hundreds of people are packed in rooms that can only accommodate 120 people. They must be freed as soon as possible before some react badly or, god forbid, commit suicide,” said human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei portrayed the Iranian uprising as a foreign plot to destabilize his government, foiled by the united response of the Iranian people:
Once again, the nation tells the US, Britain, and those who seek to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran from abroad that "you've failed, and you will fail in the future, too."
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 9, 2018
The ayatollah elaborated that he saw the protests as a conspiracy between the usual suspects in Iran’s imagination: the United States, Israel, and a “wealthy government” widely understood to be Saudi Arabia. He said the protest leaders were “henchmen” of a dissident group called the Mujahedin-e Khalq or “MEK.”
Khamenei claimed to have “hard evidence” that the protests were “very clearly directed from abroad,” and even vowed retaliation against the United States.
“U.S. officials should know that, firstly, they have missed their target,” he said. “Secondly, they have inflicted damage upon Iran in recent days, and they should know this won’t be left without a response.”
But Radio Free Europe notes that beneath Khamenei’s paranoid boilerplate lay an offhanded but perhaps important concession that the protesters had some “honest and rightful demands,” which he sought to distinguish from “the violent and vandalizing moves” by the MEK and foreign agitators.
Presumably, the ayatollah was not referring to the demonstrators’ loudly stated demand that he get out of Iran and take his mullahs with him, but it’s at least a little sign that the demonstrators rattled the theocracy.
RFE sees the “moderate” secular President Hassan Rouhani going even further in his most recent comments.
“It would be a misrepresentation and also an insult to the Iranian people to say they only had economic demands. People had economic, political, and social demands,” said Rouhani.
That is not only a break from the official line that America and Israeli teamed up with Saudi Arabia to undermine the happy Iranian government, but a repudiation of the Western media narrative that the protests were almost entirely about high unemployment. Unemployment is a useful excuse for the regime because it can, and frequently does, blame the U.S. for harming Iran’s economy by failing to live up to President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal promises. Rouhani would not lightly sacrifice a major regime talking point by admitting the uprising was about more than a disappointing economy.
Rouhani also talked about liberalizing Iranian culture and criticized the heavy-handed censorship employed to suppress the uprising, which the New York Times sees as the secular president taking the opportunity to throw a few punches at the hardline theocracy and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps:
“One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations,” Mr. Rouhani said, in remarks reported by the ISNA news agency. “The problem is that we want two generations after us to live the way we like them to.”
In his most extensive comments yet on the protests, Mr. Rouhani said that those people who took to the streets across the country did so because they were seeking a better life. “Some imagine that the people only want money and a good economy, but will someone accept a considerable amount of money per month when for instance the cyber network would be completely blocked?” he asked. “Is freedom and the life of the people purchasable with money? Why do some give the wrong reasons? This is an insult to the people.”
Mr. Rouhani, a moderate, has been seeking a relaxation in social controls, but he faces resistance from hard-liners in unelected power centers like the judiciary, vetting councils and the state news media. They want to keep in place the framework of Islamic laws that effectively dictate how people should live, despite enormous changes in Iranian society in the past decade alone.
Rouhani said the secure messaging platform Telegram, which is enormously popular in Iran but was blocked to quell the uprising, would soon be reopened, although he evidently has not provided a timetable.
The NYT mentions rumors that last week’s protests began in the religious city of Mashhad as a gambit by the hardliners to discredit Rouhani’s government, but unlike most media outlets, it notes that Rouhani’s supporters are the ones pushing that theory the hardest.
Although Rouhani is correct to acknowledge that the protesters did more than complain about the lousy economy, the Associated Press notes that Iran’s economy is quite miserable, and popular discontent with the standard of living could drive further unrest.
In particular, Iran’s banking industry is a powder keg of bad debt, and the government is having trouble financing subsidies for poor and rural Iranians because oil prices cratered just as sanctions were lifted for the nuclear deal. Ironically, the Iranian uprising is just about the only thing that has made the world oil market nervous enough to bring prices up recently.
Politically, Rouhani is term-limited and cannot run again in 2021, although some speculate he will take a run at the Supreme Leader’s position. He is commonly described as a secular moderate in Western media, but Rouhani is actually a cleric and could compete for the position.