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Those who stoked fire in Iran are now its targets

International New York Times Jan 3 2018, 23:56 IST
TOPSHOT - An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. Students protested in a third day of demonstrations sparked by anger over Iran's economic problems, videos on social media showed, but were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators. / AFP PHOTO / STR

TOPSHOT - An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. Students protested in a third day of demonstrations sparked by anger over Iran's economic problems, videos on social media showed, but were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators. / AFP PHOTO / STR

Anti-government protests roiled Iran on Tuesday, as the death toll rose to 21 and the nation's supreme leader blamed foreign enemies for the unrest. But the protests that have spread to dozens of Iranian cities in the past six days were set off by miscalculations in a long-simmering power struggle between hardliners and reformers.

By Tuesday, Iran's leaders could no longer ignore the demonstrations and felt compelled to respond publicly. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, blamed outside "enemies" but did not specify who. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, appealed for calm while saying the protesters had a right to be heard. But the anger behind the protests was directed against the entire political establishment.

While the protests that swept Iran in 2009 were led by the urban middle class, these protests have been largely driven by disaffected young people in rural areas, towns and small cities who have seized an opening to vent their frustrations with a political elite they say has hijacked the economy to serve its own interests.

Unemployment for young people - half the population - runs at 40%, analysts believe. Meanwhile, Iran has spent billions of dollars abroad in recent years to extend its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The initial catalyst for the anger appears to have been the leak by Rouhani last month of a proposed government budget. For the first time, secret parts of the budget, including details of the country's religious institutes, were exposed.

Iranians discovered that billions of dollars were going to hardline organisations, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and religious foundations that enrich the clerical elite. At the same time, the budget proposed to end cash subsidies for millions of citizens, increase fuel prices and privatise public schools.

The leak appeared to be intended to tap popular resentment, and it worked. Telegram, a social media messaging app used by over 40 million Iranians, blew up with angry comments.

"It made me angry," said Mehdi, 33, from Izeh, a town in Iran's poor Khuzestan province, who asked that his family name not to be used out of fear of retaliation. "There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment."

Last Thursday, hardliners tried to take back the initiative and embarrass the president, staging a demonstration in the holy city of Mashhad, where hundreds chanted slogans against the weak economy and shouted "death to the dictator" and "death to Rouhani."

An Iranian security official confirmed that the Friday prayer leader of the city, Ahmad Alamolhoda, a prominent hardliner, had been summoned by Iran's National Security Council to explain his role in the demonstration.

Videos of the gathering then went viral on social media, where people had for weeks been heatedly discussing the proposed budget. Frustrated Iranians elsewhere were emboldened. In reaction to the protest in Mashhad, Hesamodin Ashna, a trusted adviser to Rouhani, sent out a Twitter message on Friday, highlighting "the unbalanced distribution of the budget."

Iran's military forces, active in several countries in West Asia, saw their budget increase to $11 billion, a nearly 20% rise, he said. The budget for representatives of the supreme leader in universities was increased. An institute run by the hardline cleric Mohammad Taghi Meshbah-Yazdi was to receive eight times as much as a decade ago. Online anger reached a boiling point.

For decades, those living in Iran's provincial towns and villages were regarded as the backbone of the country's Islamic regime. They tended to be conservative, averse to change and pious followers of the sober Islamic lifestyle promoted by the state.

In less than a decade, all that has changed. A 14-year drought has emptied villages, with residents moving to nearby cities where they often struggle to find jobs. Access to satellite television and, more important, the mobile internet has widened their world.

"On Instagram, I saw a picture of a woman in Tehran with her SUV, who wrote she spends $3,000 on her pets each month," Mehdi said. "A person can live here with that money for a year. I got angry."

His city, Izeh, was famous for being home to many who had been exiled by the hardline judiciary. "Izeh has changed a lot over the years - more people, but no entertainment, not even a cinema," he said. "Many people use drugs." On Friday, protests broke out in Izeh. The government news agency said two protesters were killed there by security forces.

Growing frustration

In Tehran, the capital, Mohammad Alinejad had been sitting behind the wheel of his dilapidated Peugeot when he heard of the protests in Mashhad. "I was cheering," he said. "I want these clerics to go. They have destroyed
my life."

He had been hit by shrapnel during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and a piece had remained stuck in his head. His status as a handicapped veteran exempts his son from the mandatory 24-month military service, but when he tried to get the exemption papers he got stuck in a bureaucratic merry-go-round that is all too common for Iranians.

"I had to pay bribes, or else no one would help me, and in the end we didn't get anywhere," he said. He blamed the clerics for everything: privatisation, corruption, inequality and long days with low pay.

"I don't care if our country becomes the next Iraq or Syria," he said, "but I'm so frustrated with them, that I just want them gone and we can think about the consequences tomorrow."

In Qom, the centre of Iran's theological educational institutes, one cleric said he was worried about the level of anger.

"People are angry when they see how much money some clerical institutions and Friday prayer leaders are being paid in the budget," the cleric, Fazel Meybodi, said. "Many of them are old and have no appeal to the youths. They must be changed."

As protests took off in about 40 cities across the country, Tehran remained largely quiet. In 2009, more than 3 million people took to the streets disputing the elections.

But this time, many said they feared the raging, leaderless protests. "They are angry, and have a right to be, but there is just nothing more, no plan for the day after," said Hamidreza Faraji, a cosmetic and honey salesman who struggles to live a decent life.

"We can't keep on going on to change our leaders," he said, standing in his shop, which like others nearby was empty of customers. No one he knew wanted Iran to become the next Syria or Iraq in the chaos that might follow, he explained.

"Many of the protesters shout, "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran," Faraji said. "But we have entered this bad game in the region, so now we have to finish it. Just like we have no other option but to live with our leaders. Unless there is a better alternative."

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