Analysis

'Take care of us': Why thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets

Widespread street protests in Iran, which began in cities where Iran’s government usually enjoys widespread support, have grown into a wider movement demanding change from the government, in a country where dissent is not often tolerated.

Wave of anger sparked by economic concerns has grown into wider demonstrations against Islamic government

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran Dec. 30. Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in what has become a days-long demonstration driven by anger over the country's ailing economy. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

An Iranian woman scrawled "death to the dictator" in red spray paint. A crowd burned a picture of the country's late supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Others stood up to the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

These are remarkable acts of protest in Iran, a country where dissent is rarely tolerated, women are treated as second class citizens and gay men are routinely persecuted.

This wave of anger is the most severe threat to Iran's cleric-led government since the so-called Green Revolution of 2009, several months of protests to back reforms following allegations of a rigged presidential election.

The current countrywide protests have rocked Iran, ever since people took to the streets on Dec. 28 to demonstrate against rising prices and poor economic conditions.

Expensive eggs

It was largely poor Iranians who launched the demonstrations, with some analysts citing the sharp increase in egg and poultry prices as the spark.  

Unemployment in Iran runs at about 12 per cent, but it soared to 29 per cent for young people in 2017. Iran's economy has improved now that some sanctions have been removed, since the international agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program came into force in 2015.

But many Iranians complain that economic benefits have not trickled down to them.

Marina Nemat, the author of the memoir Prisoner of Tehran, was born in Iran but now lives in Aurora, Ont. She said in a country with a "brutal" government, deciding to take to the streets "is difficult to do." 

"When the average citizen has difficulty putting food on the table, when the average citizen has difficulty putting a roof above their family's head, it is much easier to get on the street and protest," Nemat told CBC News. 

Longstanding corruption 

Iran's middle class, analysts say, has yet to join the protests in large numbers. 

As with most anti-government movements, Iranians are also voicing anger at corruption and mismanagement.

The first protests began in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city. (NCRI-FAC/Twitter)

Some of the most vociferous protests have taken place in areas long believed to ardently support the government. They began in Masshad, Iran's second largest city, where demonstrators chanted "death to Rouhani," calling out President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear deal.

"Clearly there is a very, very strong frustration among the population over the worsening economic situation," said Trita Parsi of National Iranian American Council. "[People] were expecting things to move in the right direction, and those expectations have not been met."

'Get out of Syria'

The demonstrations spread to other government strongholds, including Qom, home to some of the most important academic institutions for Shia scholarship. In recent days, protests have taken place in dozens of cities across the countries.

Iranians chanted "get out of Syria and take care of us," and "death to Hezbollah" — expressing concerns that Iran's government spends too much money propping up its other interests in the Middle East.

The focus of their anger is not one political side. Iranians are furious at both the hardliners who dominate the government and the reformers trying to modernize the country.

A photo from social media shows a protest in Tehran on Dec. 30. (Reuters)

Smartphone revolution?

While economic concerns and corruption have stirred anger among ordinary Iranians for decades, what's changed now is the explosion of smartphone use.

In a country of 80 million there were 48 million smartphones in use in 2017, compared with just two million in 2014. 

Iran has limited freedom of expression, but internet-connected devices have given Iranians a powerful new tool to communicate with one another — and the outside world.

Knowing just how popular many of these digital platforms are, the Iranian authorities moved in the days following the outbreak of the street protests to block several apps.

Telegram is a messaging app that was widely used by Iranians. (CBC)

The messaging app Telegram, which supports encrypted chats, has more than 40 million active Iranian users. Many shared notices about upcoming rallies and videos documenting the protests, until the authorities shut it down to "maintain peace."

Instagram, the photo sharing service owned by Facebook, also appears to be down.

Will protestors get what they want?

Some people have expressed hope the demonstrators will force Iran's leaders to act, but the country's history doesn't appear to make this likely.

The killing of an Iranian police officer earlier this week has now sparked worries of an even harsher crackdown by Iran's security forces. 

Still, tens of thousands of Iranians are defying calls to stay home as protests continue, usually at nighttime, in many cities across Iran.

Iranian-born political analyst Meir Javendanfar sees an opportunity for Rouhani, the reform-minded president, to harness the current wave of anger and use it as a cudgel against his hardline critics.

President Hassan Rouhani said Iranians have the right to protest but those demonstrations should not make the public 'feel concerned about their lives and security.' (Iranian Presidency Office via Associated Press)

"In the long run, I think these demonstrations will actually provide Rouhani with leverage," said Javendanfar, a lecturer on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyam in Israel.

"He can tell the hardliners, 'Look, you didn't let me do economic reforms and look what we got.  Do you want more of this? Because if you don't let me reform, this is what's going to happen.'"

Author Nemat argues that "history moves slowly" in Iran, but she remains hopeful of change in her home country.

"I'm not saying that this round of protests are this point of no return. I don't think the situation in Iran or the region is ripe enough right now to allow for a regime change in Iran, but Iran is edging toward that point."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.