This columnist’s first trip to Iran occurred in July of 1999. That same month, student protests broke out in many of Iran’s major cities, sparked by the closure of a reformist newspaper but quickly snowballing into a host of grievances with the clerical authorities in the country.
In Ouremiya, while being driven around by a Kurdish-Azeri newfound-friend (an average sort of fellow, a tradesman and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war), every time we passed someone in clerical robes, my friend would launch into series of swear words in Turkish and Kurdish.
I finally asked him “Why?”. He answered “You see that mullah in his fine robes? He probably has several temporary marriages a month, a huge house and everything else corruption and power can bring you. Now look around – look at the young boys selling cigarettes and gum on the street, look at the poverty. Yet the mullahs send our money, the part they didn’t steal, to Hezbollah and to Palestine.”
I then understood more while in Tehran later, when I witnessed men in clerical robes practically unable to hail a taxi, so unpopular were they with some segments of the population.
A whole segment of Tehran’s population seems to lead lifestyles considered illicit by the government, finding innumerable subtle ways to protest the regime – from secret rendezvous and parties to women who will wear their headscarf as far back as physically possible, sporting makeup and the latest western fashions as well.
Some ten years later in 2009, more protests erupted, especially in Tehran, following the rigged presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. In Kurdish areas of Iran, the protests have been erupting regularly for decades, although the regime’s closed nature means most international media are unable to cover these events and the world as a result remains ignorant of the situation there.
In one infamous incident, some six weeks of protests erupted in Iranian Kurdistan in 2005 after government authorities there killed Shiwan Qaderi, a young opposition activist, and then dragged his body behind a Toyota pickup truck through the streets of Mahabad.
In every case, from the July 1999 student protests, the abortive “Green Revolution” of June 2009 and the last 20 years of Iranian Kurdish protests, the Iranian authorities reacted brutally. In 1999 plainclothes police and militia (mostly Ansar-e-Hezbollah, apparently) invaded student dormitories and threw students from the third floor balconies of their rooms.
In 2009 the authorities seem to have bussed in villagers with the Basij militia into Tehran, issued them with clubs and other weapons, and set them loose on the protestors. In the Kurdish regions, Iranian troops opened fire on protestors, arrested and tortured too many to count, and slapped long curfews on entire cities.
None of this, with the partial exception of the 2009 protests and crackdown, elicited much of a reaction from the international community. Even in 2009, Western leaders such as Barack Obama avoided explicitly supporting the pro-democracy protestors for fear of playing into the hands of mullahs’ Western conspiracy theories – in which protests are never the result of failed policies and repression at home, but rather always symptoms of “dark forces abroad” who want to destabilize Iran.
The cycle continues this week, as protests that erupted on December 28th in Northeast Iran have now spread to Iranian Kurdistan, Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahane, Sari, Qazvin, Ahvaz, Hamadan and even the conservative, holy city of Qom. According to Kurdistan 24 news, “The demonstrations began as protests against soaring prices, but quickly took on a political character, as widespread corruption, as well as Iran’s costly interventions in Syria and Iraq, became topics of public anger.” Protestors chanted, among other things about Iranian “dictators,” a call for attention to problems within Iran: “leave Syria alone, think about us.”
The reaction of Iranian authorities will no doubt prove predictable, and the protests will be quelled violently wherever necessary. The Iranian state’s repressive nature is not unique in the world but for a relatively well educated and smart Iranian population, this makes little difference. The hypocrisy of Iranian officials’ discourse about “justice,” “the downtrodden in Palestine” (or Burma or anywhere non-Muslims oppress Muslims), anti-imperialism and so forth grows unbearable for people in Iran as they watch all the injustice and poverty at home.
They see their tax and oil earnings going to supply the likes of Assad with barrel bombs to butcher whole neighborhoods in Syria while average Iranians go without. Kurds in particular hear the discourse about Palestine and wonder at Iran’s destructive interventions blocking Kurdish aspirations for freedom – from Tehran or even next door in Iraq.
In the end, authorities in Tehran should know that any state that must regularly resort to beating, imprisoning and butchering large numbers of its own citizens is not as strong as one might think. When the previous regime of Reza Shah persisted with such behavior, eventually the chickens came home to roost.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.