The most significant aspect of the protests has been the anti-Islamic character of these demonstrations.
Protesters are also angry at the Iranian meddling in foreign affairs, which they perceive as jeopardising their interests.
The significance of the latest Iranian protests lies in both the spontaneity and the city of its origin. On 28 December, a group of protesters gathered at the Shohadah square in Mashhad – the second-most populous city in Iran. The city houses the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam. The shrine, under the aegis of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, runs hospitals, banks, industries and seminaries across Iran.
The protesters were angry at the continuously rising food and petrol prices. In contrast with the hopes of economic recovery and general betterment in living conditions after the interim deal between Iran and P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) in 2013, the situation had deteriorated hopelessly further. In case of some basic commodities such as poultry and eggs, the price rise has been as steep as 50 to 60 per cent in a span of less than one month.
The situation had been made worse by erratic payments to pensioners and loss of money by several in various investment schemes. The budget presented by President Hassan Rouhani on 10 December 2017 seems to have added fuel to fire. The budget not only had a spiralling effect on prices of commodities of daily use, it allocated huge funds to religious bodies and endowments in Iran and abroad. Within a day, the protests had spread to Kermanshah, Rasht, Sari, Qazvin, Hamadan and the holy city of Qom, where the most grand Ayatollahs live.
Unlike 2009, when the Green movement protests under Mir Hossein Mousavi were limited to Tehran, the protests have spread across Iran. Students and women are participating in large numbers. An iconic picture of these protests is a woman waving a white scarf while refusing to don the hijab. A striking difference from 2009 is also the participation of people from lower-income groups. As expected, even small towns and suburbs are seeing intense protests.
The most significant aspect of the protests has been the anti-Islamic character of these demonstrations. Protesters are also angry at the Iranian meddling in foreign affairs, which they perceive as jeopardising their interests. Some common slogans by protesters have been “Mullahs get lost”, “Clerics, return us our country”, “Death to Khamenei”, “Death to Hezbollah”, “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, my sacrifice is for Iran”, “This is the end of your adventure”.
Slogans have also been heard hailing the former Shah monarchy of Iran. The chants of “Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic” are mocking the idea of “Islamic Republic of Iran”.
Several videos show protesters tearing down posters of supreme leader Khamenei and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who is also in charge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s operations abroad. Just a decade ago, no one could have ever imagined such disrespect for Khamenei, either within or outside Iran. Train services and schools have been closed. A channel, Amad News, on the widely popular messaging app Telegram, accused by the Iranian government of encouraging violence, has been suspended. Two protesters have been killed in firing by security forces in the western town of Dorud.
Whether or not the demonstrators succeed in bringing about a regime change, the Iranian protests will go down as momentous for challenging Islamism in the Muslim world and that too by ordinary Muslim men and women. These protests are important because instead of finding excuses for their economic woes in foreign conspiracies, Iranians are identifying their own policies as a cause of concern. From foreign interventions in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine to Islamism in their daily lives, Iranians are seeking change that upends the course of politics in the Muslim world.