Howls of pain


THE Iranian regime is once again being challenged for its failures. Across the country, crowds have taken to the streets, apparently spontaneously, to protest soaring living costs, persistently high unemployment and corruption.

President Hassan Rouhani, the allegedly reformist politician who suckered Barack Obama into lifting economic sanctions in return for a virtually meaningless nuclear deal, responded after fours days of demonstrations by saying that Iranians were free to protest against the government but they were not free to use violence or jeopardize the country’s security. This announcement will have caused jaws to drop. Among ordinary Iranians who long ago despaired of a decent life under the ayatollahs, the memory of the massive 2009 protests against the regime and its bloody suppression is still clear and painful.

Jaws will also have dropped among the Revolutionary Guards, the protectors of the 1979 revolution and of the dubious political inheritance of Ruhollah Khomeini. They have dedicated themselves to the crushing of dissent, whether in Iran itself or in Syria in support of the Bashar Assad dictatorship. Yet during the first four days of these latest protests in Iran, the Ayatollah’s bullyboys have been notable by their relative absence. It may be that the outbreak of anger in a dozen towns and cities, including the capital Tehran, caught the Guards by surprise. It is equally possible that the Revolutionary Guard have become victims of their own corruption, complacent and flabby on the proceeds of some of the dominant sectors of the economy over which they now exert control.

However, given this new attack on their privileges and vital interests it is clear that they will not remain inactive for long. President Hassan Rouhani can state publicly that Iranians have the right to protest; the Revolutionary Guards know better. They saw how in 1979 the Shah’s feared secret police, the Savak, failed to clamp down early on protests. As a result the demonstrations spread like wild fire. The guardians of Khomeini’s revolution are not going to make the same mistake.

In 2012, over half of the population was under the age of 35. Unemployment, inflation, poor working conditions and lack of opportunity for those who do have jobs would appear to have mobilized the protestors. Among the Revolutionary Guard’s more thoughtful leaders there is also likely to be the analysis that thus far, the majority of those who have taken to the streets are young people. Since the vicious 2009 crackdown, the country has continued to lose many of its brightest and best. Either they have gone into exile or they are incarcerated in Iran’s notorious prisons. This extends to the leaders of genuine political opposition.

Rouhani won the presidency in 2013 on a platform of reform after the repressive and unhinged leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the hopes that Rouhani could in some way loosen the iron rule of his fellow ayatollahs, specifically that of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, were always futile. Four years on, even with the lifting of many US-led sanctions, the economy remains in trouble. The regime is economically illiterate. The trading genius of the bazaari merchants, the deeply-disappointed early backers of Khomeini’s revolution, is now largely confined to the black market. Real economic growth remains at a standstill. But the howls of pain that have brought the young onto the streets are of no interest to the self-serving regime in Tehran.