The Current

Violence won't stop Iranian protesters determined to 'topple this regime,' says human rights activist

Lawyer and human rights activist Kaveh Shahrooz discusses unrest in Iran, where more than 100 protesters are reported killed amid an internet blackout.

More than 100 people reported killed in protests, as government blocks internet

Protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran on Saturday. (AFP via Getty Images)
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Demonstrators in Iran won't be cowed with violence, according to a lawyer and human rights activist.

"The people are incredibly angry, and they want to topple this regime," said Kaveh Shahrooz, who was born in Iran but now lives in Canada, and is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Centre for Advancing Canada's Interests Abroad.

Demonstrations erupted across Iran Friday after the government announced a steep hike in fuel prices. Amnesty International says more than 100 people have been killed, but the number is difficult to verify because the regime has shut down the country's internet.

While rallies supporting the government were staged in several cities Wednesday, Shahrooz told The Current's Laura Lynch that "frustrations that have been building for 40 years" won't be easily quelled.

Cars block a street during a protest against a rise in gasoline prices, in Isfahan, Iran, on Saturday. (The Associated Press)

Here is part of their conversation.

You've been in touch with it relative in Iran. What is he saying about the situation there right now?

It's been incredibly difficult to talk to family members. We typically use WhatsApp or Telegram, those are the favourite apps. I haven't been able to reach my family that way, but using regular phone lines, I was able to reach a cousin in Tehran a couple of days ago. First of all, we didn't get to speak very long. The call cut off after about one minute and that's been the experience, I think, of a lot of people.

He was quite scared. He said that there was tension in the air, it seemed like martial law. And I think there's a lot of confusion, I mean, he was asking me for information, because information is cut off. 

These are far from the first demonstrations in Iran. The government faced widespread demonstrations in 2009 in the wake of the election there. How do you think the current protests compare to that?

I think these protests are very different than the 2009 protests … At their core, they were really about working within the Islamic Republic's system, and perhaps reforming it to some extent. 

These protests reject the entirety of the Islamic Republic. I mean, people are out there chanting "Death to the dictator!" They don't seem to want to fix the system because they've seen that it can't be fixed.

The other thing that's interesting about these protests is that the people that have come out are not, sort of, the upper classes. It's not really Tehran, for example, that's the most violent scene of these protests. It's actually in smaller places, in smaller towns, where the people are poorer that have been hit most hard with the mismanagement and corruption that's so rampant in the Islamic Republic. 

BBC Persian correspondent Jiyar Gol joins our program to discuss the ongoing protests in Iran, which were partially sparked by fuel rationing and skyrocketing gas prices 6:37

You think it's about more than the price of petrol?

Oh, absolutely ... that was simply the trigger. But these are frustrations that have been building for 40 years. It's really a combination of anger at the government's theft, at their mismanagement ... I mean, these are people's chants, I'm not simply interpreting it, this is what people are yelling.

People are also incredibly frustrated at 40 years of human rights violations and absence of free speech and all of that. 

The Trump administration has ramped up sanctions against Iran since pulling out of the nuclear deal last year. I'm wondering how much of the current hardship in Iran can be blamed on that?

I think, certainly, they've not been without effect. The sanctions have emptied the coffers of the Iranian regime to some extent. But these simply exacerbated problems that already existed. The leaders of the Islamic Republic and people around them have hoarded billions of dollars. They've stolen billions out of the public purse. And that's really why the economy is faltering.

What's interesting is that if you listen to the chants of people in the streets, they're not blaming the Americans for it. The chants are — "Our enemy is not the U.S., our enemy is right here" — meaning that people in Iran recognize that their enemy, the cause of their suffering, is actually the Iranian government. 

Even if they manage to put down this particular insurrection, there will be another one- Kaveh Shahrooz

And yet we are seeing pro-government demonstrations today, and the blaming of foreign influence.

Oh, of course, every dictatorship throughout history has been able to, you know, get a few of its thugs out, when need be. 

So what does that mean then for Trump's so-called maximum pressure campaign

I think the U.S. administration will probably read these protesters as a sign that their pressure campaign is working. I would say that some of these sanctions are well-calibrated and they're putting pressure on the right places. Some of them are not. 

I think there's certain sanctions that, for example, affect people's livelihoods, the ability of people to get medicine, for example. I have in the past advised policymakers in the U.S. to recalibrate those. But I think as a whole, the U.S. administration will think that these are probably working and having the desired effect. 

An Iranian man shows that his phone has no internet connection on Sunday. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE)

[Reporter Parisa Hafezi] thinks these protests will be ended within the next couple of days. I'm wondering what you think.

The Iranian regime is incredibly brutal. I don't doubt that they will unleash all sorts of violence against the protesters. But I think the anger has not been addressed. I think even if they manage to put down this particular insurrection, there will be another one very shortly. And the people are incredibly angry and they want to topple this regime.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler, Max Paris and Joana Draghici. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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