World View: Massive Tehran Riots Strike Deep into Iran Government’s Legitimacy

Iranians shop at Tehran's ancient Grand Bazaar on January 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

This morning’s key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • Massive Tehran riots strike deep into Iran government’s legitimacy
  • Tehran demonstrators attack Iran’s foreign policy
  • Brief generational history of Iran’s protests

Massive Tehran riots strike deep into Iran government’s legitimacy

Protester in Tehran, Iran, on Monday with banner, 'We Want Democracy!' (Getty)
Protester in Tehran, Iran, on Monday with banner, ‘We Want Democracy!’ (Getty)

Thousands of Iranians on Monday took to the streets of Tehran, Iran’s capital city, to protest rising prices and a sinking economy, with unemployment rates above 24 percent. Traders at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar closed their shops and joined the demonstrators, protesting the sharp fall in Iran’s rial currency versus the U.S. dollar.

The prices of imported goods have skyrocketed because of the loss in value of the rial. The official exchange rate is 42,000 rials per U.S. dollar. But in April, the black market exchange rate was 60,000. Just one week ago, the exchange rate was 80,000. On Sunday, it shot up by another 10,000 rials, to an exchange rate of 90,000 rials per U.S. dollar. This kind of increase means that the cost of an imported item has now more than doubled in price, in just a few weeks.

It is apparently Sunday’s apparent collapse in the value of the rial that triggered the mass protests on Monday. Shopkeepers joined the protesters chanting “Strike!” and “We don’t want the dollar at 100,000 rials!”

In desperation, Iran’s central bank plans to set up a “secondary currency market” by next week. The details have yet to be released, but the idea seems to be that new regulations would prevent merchants from raising prices when the value of the rial fall.

Needless to say, this is infuriating to merchants and shopkeepers who can see that they are going to be required to pay more for imported goods, but that there will be new regulations forbidding them from charging higher prices for the same items. This is the same kind of thing that has been tried in Venezuela and Zimbabwe with disastrous results.

In late December of last year, there were similar economic protests that spread to some 75 cities and towns, resulting in 25 people killed and nearly 5,000 arrested. NBC News and BBC and Tehran Times and Radio Farda

Tehran demonstrators attack Iran’s foreign policy

As happened in December’s massive demonstrations, the protests quickly spread from economics to foreign policy and to questioning the competence of the entire government.

In my article on the December protests, I listed about 20 of the protests that were being chanted, many of them quite vicious. One chant that was prominent on Monday that did not appear in my previous list is “Death to Palestine!”

This is a particularly ironic chant because it cuts into the entire ethos of the Islamic government. The two supreme leaders, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, used a variety of artifices to justify their mass slaughter, torture, rape, and extrajudicial arrests of innocent peaceful protesters, but the main ones have always been to blame Iran’s problems on the Big Satan (the United States) and the Little Satan (Israel). As I have been reporting for years, the young generations of Iran are generally pro-Western and pro-American, and this chant makes it clear that they are pro-Israel – or at least not anti-Israel.

The protesters’ objections to Iran’s foreign policy ties back again to the economy. Iran is spending enormous amounts of money supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, supporting the Houthis in Yemen, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and supporting Hamas in Gaza. After the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, and Iran received billions of dollars in released funds, instead of spending the money on the economy, the perception among Iranians is that they wasted the money on Syria, Yemen, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

I particularly have to shake my head at Iran’s support for Hamas, using Iranian-supplied weapons to attack Israel. Hamas is a Sunni terrorist group, and they will never accept hegemony from Shia Iran. They are happy to take any free money and weapons supplied by Iran, of course, but it shows the depth the delusions suffered by 78-year-old Khamenei that he thinks he can govern the Sunni Palestinians – or even more delusional, if he believes that al-Mahdi, the hidden Imam from Shia theology, is about to return and convert the world to Islam, rewarding him for supplying arms to Hamas.

With the Trump administrations imposing new sanctions, the huge stream of money that Iran started receiving in 2015 is now going to be sharply reduced. This is providing the government with the opportunity to blame Iran’s economic troubles on the U.S., when in fact the economy would be in much better shape if the stream of money hadn’t been wasted on foreign wars. Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel and Asharq Al-Awsat (Saudi Arabia)

Brief generational history of Iran’s protests

One of the many ironies of Monday’s protests is that they were led by merchants and shopkeepers in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. Merchants and shopkeepers were strong supporters of Khomeini at the start of the Great Islamic Revolution in 1979 because they were highly critical of the economic policies of the secular but autocratic government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Not surprisingly, after 40 years of the hardline extremist Sharia law imposed by Khomeini and Khamenei and the resulting economic disaster, two of the chants that could be heard on Monday were “Death to the dictator!” and “Reza Shah, Bless Your Soul!”

But the significance of Monday’s protests goes back much farther than that.

During the 1800s, Iran (Persia) was repeatedly humiliated in border clashes with Britain and Russia. So the public had had enough when Iran’s government granted a tobacco concession to Britain in 1890. This concession granted a monopoly on both the purchase and sale of tobacco within Persia to an English company for a period of fifty years. The tobacco concession struck at the heart of Iran’s culture. At this time, nearly everyone in Iran, both men and women, used tobacco products, as they gathered to smoke and drink coffee. The tobacco merchants felt their livelihood threatened and enlisted the help of other bazaar merchants to organize anti-government protests. In the northern regions of Iran under Russian influence, including today’s Azerbaijan, support for the protests was strong because the monopoly had been granted to the British, locking out the Russians.

The result was the Tobacco Revolt (1890-92). The Shah was forced to rescind the tobacco concession, but the protests continued, and dozens of protesters were killed before the protests fizzled. The Tobacco Revolt was a major event in Iranian history, with implications far beyond the income of tobacco merchants.

In the end, the issues raised by the Tobacco Revolt were not about tobacco production, but about the right of the Shah to have the power to grant concessions to other nations without the approval of the people. Muslim countries had had Sharia law for centuries, based on Roman law but merged with the core concepts of Islam. But Sharia law had to do with rules for ordinary people and placed no restrictions at all on the what the Shah could do.

That is when the people of Iran looked across the Atlantic and saw what America had done in 1789, ratifying the Constitution of the United States, and the related document, the Bill of Rights. Becoming aware of the U.S. Constitution, and of the French Revolution, the people of Iran began to demand their own constitution.

Iran had two generational crisis civil wars during the 1900s, the second one being the Islamic revolution in 1979. But the first one was the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-09.

The Tobacco Revolt provided a template to the public in 1905, when there were protests over an increase in the price of sugar. The government blamed the sugar merchants, and several sugar merchants were beaten and tortured. A leading preacher and radical constitutionalist, Seyyed Jamal al-Din Isfahani attacked the government from the pulpit, leading to public protests, especially from students, merchants, and shopkeepers.

By January 1906, the Shah agreed to the public demands, including the formation of a house of justice, or consultative assembly. The Shah did not follow up on his promises, leading to a confrontation involving a group of clerics and their students in which a student was killed. This triggered wider protests, with over 12,000 protesters demanding the formation of a majlis, or parliament. The first majlis convened in October 1906 and set about the task of writing a constitution. An ailing Shah decreed the document they produced into law in December 1906, a few days before his death.

The Shah’s son became the new Shah in January 1907. He was against the constitution of 1906 ratified during the regime of his father. Iran was still under occupation of Russian forces in the north and British forces in the south, and both the Russian and British forces supported the Shah in opposing the constitution and the Majlis. On June 23, 1908, Russia’s Cossack Brigade shelled and plundered the parliament building, executing several constitutionalist leaders. The Shah and the Cossack Brigade ruled until July 1909, when pro-Constitution forces marched from Iran’s province of Azerbaijan to Tehran, defeating the Cossacks, deposing the Shah, and re-establishing the constitution.

That was the climax of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution. So finally, over a century after America’s written constitution and the French Revolution and its imposition of law, Iran had officially become a country ruled by law, not by leaders who are above the law.

They say that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Just as the Tobacco Revolt was a precursor to the Constitutional Revolution, the protests arising from the White Revolution of 1963 were the precursor to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The White Revolution was actually a government program instituted by the Shah. It included land reform, the nationalization of forests, the sale of state-owned enterprises to the private sector, a profit-sharing plan for industrial workers, and the formation of a Literacy Corps to eradicate illiteracy in rural areas. The White Revolution also granted Iranian women the right to vote, increased women’s minimum legal marriage age to 18, and improved women’s legal rights in divorce and child custody matters.

These reforms were opposed by Iran’s clergy, in particular, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini led the June 5, 1963 uprising, opposing the Shah and the White Revolution. In the course of this uprising, the authorities quelled resistance among the religious students in a seminary in the city of Qum and a number of students lost their lives. Khomeini’s activities eventually led to his exile to Iraq in 1964.

The protests of both the Tobacco Revolt and the White Revolution were led by élites. In 1890, the élites were the tobacco merchants. In 1962, it was religious leaders who feared that they would lose their influence and control over sectors of society where they were preeminent. Things like land reform, improving literacy through better education, and granting women additional rights could all be viewed as threatening to the clerics and imams and their areas of traditional authority.

The leader of the insurgents in Iran’s 1979 civil war was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had led the anti-government protests in the 1963 White Revolution and ended up seeing hundreds of his followers killed, after which he was sent into exile by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. When Khomeini made his triumphant return from 16 years of exile to Tehran on February 1, 1979, he was ready for revenge.

Khomeini had already gotten his revenge on the Shah. Although he had been in exile, he was able in 1978-79 to incite widespread anti-Shah uprisings based on discontent with a populist ideology tied to Islamic principles and calls for the overthrow of the Shah. The uprisings forced the Shah’s government to collapse and, suffering from cancer, the Shah went into exile and left Iran on January 16, 1979. He lived in Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, and Mexico before going to the United States for treatment of lymphatic cancer, where he died.

Thousands of people were killed in Iran’s civil war, including thousands who were jailed or executed by Khomeini. Khomeini claims that 60,000 people were killed. Here’s a paragraph from the preamble to Khomeini’s 1979 constitution:

After slightly more than a year of continuous and unrelenting struggle, the sapling of the Revolution, watered by the blood of more than 60,000 martyrs and 100,000 wounded and disabled, not to mention billions of tumans’ worth of property damage, came to bear fruit amidst the cries of “Independence! Freedom! Islamic government!” This great movement, which attained victory through reliance upon faith, unity, and the decisiveness of its leadership at every critical and sensitive juncture, as well as the self-sacrificing spirit of the people, succeeded in upsetting all the calculations of imperialism and destroying all its connections and institutions, thereby opening a new chapter in the history of all embracing popular revolutions of the world.

However, analysts outside of Iran question the 60,000 figure and give much lower estimates of 3,000-4,000.

But that was not the end of it. Ayatollah Khomeini’s bloodthirsty lusts reached a kind of peak in 1988 when he ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of political prisoners and political enemies, especially those in the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). He issued this decree in July 1988:

Whoever at any stage continues to belong to the PMOI must be executed. Annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately! …Those who are in prisons throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for PMOI are waging war on God and are condemned to execution. … It is naive to show mercy to those who wage war on God.

That was not the end of it either. When students protested in 1999, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered huge, bloody massacres, rapes, torture, and other atrocities. The same happened in 2009, to students protesting the election.

The 1999 protests marked a major turning point in Iran’s government, because it was the first time that it was clear that younger generations would not accept the extremist rule of Khamenei, and that the Great Islamic Revolution was a complete failure as an Islamic ideal, and instead was just another cheap, vicious dictatorship, led by an old geezer who has abandoned righteous Shia theology for bloody oppression.

Ever since the Constitutional Revolution, the people of Iran have demanded that their leaders follow the law, as defined in the constitution. Here’s one more excerpt from Khomeini’s 1979 constitution:

Islamic Government is designed on a basis of “religious guardianship” as put forward by Imam Khomeini at the height of the intense emotion and strangulation (felt) under the despotic regime. This created a specific motivation and new field of advance for the Muslim people; and opened up the true path for the religious fight of Islam, pressing forward the struggle of the committed Muslim combatants, inside and outside the country.

The publication by the [Reza Shah] regime on [January 7, 1978] of the letter which insulted the sacred order of the clergy, and in particular the Imam Khomeini, hastened this movement. It caused the people’s anger to explode all over the country. In an effort to control this volcano of popular anger, the regime tried to suppress the protest uprising by bloodshed. This very fact set more blood pulsing through the veins of the Revolution. Continuing revolutionary passion at the time of the seven-day and forty-day commemoration of the martyrs of the Revolution, added on an ever-increasing scale to the vitality and ardor and fervent unity of the movement throughout the country. It continued and extended the people’s upheaval in all the country’s organizations by a general strike and joining in street demonstrations while actively seeking the downfall of the despotic regime. Widespread co-operation of men and women of all classes, and of religious and political groups, in this struggle, took place in decisive and dramatic fashion In particular women joined openly on all the scenes of this great Holy War, ever more actively and extensively. Such a scene would be a mother with a child in her bosom hastening to the battlefield and facing machine gun fire This large section of society took a main and decisive part in the struggle.

Reading this excerpt from Khomeini’s own 1979 constitution makes it clear that he has a great deal to fear. Iran is coming full circle. The students and merchants of today have read the constitution, and are following its prescriptions – popular anger, uprisings, strikes, street demonstrations, even facing gunfire – while actively seeking the downfall of this new despotic regime. It’s something that Khomeini himself should have predicted. Homa Katouzian and Iran’s Constitution

Related Articles

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Iran, Persia, Tehran, Grand Bazaar, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Palestine, Israel, Hamas, Gaza, Hezbollah, Syria, Lebanon, Houthis, Yemen, al-Mahdi, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Britain, Russia, Cossack Brigade, Tobacco Revolt, Constitutional Revolution, White Revolution, Islamic Revolution
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