Unrest in Iran: a breakdown of events

Image of protests in Iran, via AP.

The clock struck twelve in Tehran on November 15th, and thus began the Iranian weekend. The theocratic government decided this was the best time to abruptly unveil its plan to ration fuel, despite President Rouhani announcing a new oil field — holding 53 million barrels — has been discovered in southwestern Iran earlier this month. The measure would increase the price of petrol by 50% on the first 60 liters purchased each month and 300% on purchases over 60 liters. 

In the following days, as Iranians began to congregate in over 100 cities across the country, images started to circulate online of the unrest. As protesters mobilized, blocked traffic, and burnt banks and gas stations, the government almost immediately began to use lethal force: video footage shows riot police using firearms, water cannons, tear gas, and batons against protesters. 

It became difficult to monitor the humanitarian situation when the Islamic Republic imposed a near-total internet blackout preventing the dissemination of information, as reported by Netblocks. Since its inception, the internet in Iran has been heavily monitored and restricted by the government, so most people log-on using a virtual private network or VPN. During the blackout, no form of internet usage was possible, and by November 16th, Iran’s largest mobile network operators went offline as well. 

The move not only debilitated Iranians but prevented the spread of information. Amin Sabeti, a researcher with digital security NGO Digital Impact Lab noted the following: “In Kashmir, Iraq or Sudan, you could still find journalists, they could report back – for instance from the BBC. For Iran, it wasn’t the case.”

The blackout prompted the Iranian diasporic population to create the hashtag #Internet4Iran which was used by the U.S. Department of State in a tweet. 

Human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, put out a statement saying that at least 106 protesters in 21 cities have been killed, and that “the real death toll may be much higher.” One source reported that at least 366 people have died including a nine-year-old child.

“According to eyewitness accounts corroborated by video footage reviewed by Amnesty International, snipers have also shot into crowds of people from rooftops and, in one case, a helicopter. Iranian state media have reported only a handful of protester deaths, as well as the deaths of at least four members of the security forces,” the NGO wrote on their website

According to Amnesty, Iranian state media also reported that, as of November 17th, more than 1,000 protesters had been arrested since the protests began, but there is reason to believe that the real number is much higher. Iran, being a country that is said to have had the largest number of executions per capita, and with prison conditions described as “horrific,” the fate of those detained during the protests remains uncertain. A hard-liner newspaper in Iran has suggested that violent demonstrators will face execution by hanging. 

The protests in Iran, which were sparked by the hike in fuel prices, quickly turned into a national outcry against the poor economic conditions, lack of political and social freedoms, and systematic corruption of the government overall. The country has been violating international human rights for decades and is often criticized for its harsh punishment of crimes including victimless crimes like fornication and homosexuality, execution of offenders under 18 years of age, restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, and lack of freedom of religion and gender equality. 

More recently, the complaints of the people have been mostly centered around economic concerns. Prior to the current unrest, President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani said, “Iran is experiencing one of its hardest years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.”

Though official numbers on Iranians below the poverty line have been hard to gauge and intentionally kept under wraps, prominent economist, Hossein Raghfar has estimated that 33 percent of Iran’s population, i.e. nearly 26 million people, are suffering from absolute poverty. 

One independent polling organization found that almost 75% of the 4,500 people it spoke with “expressed dissatisfaction with domestic affairs in the country.” 

Over the past year, the Iranian rial has lost nearly 50% of its value, with the U.S. dollar equaling about 45,000 rials in the open market. 

The state of the crippled Iranian economy is mostly a result of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, but Iranians have recently expressed dissatisfaction with the mismanagement of funds by their government as well. It is clear that the Iranians have a similar goal to their Lebanese and Iraqi counterparts in demanding the end of Iran’s political project in the region, with hopes that the government redirects funds into their own economy. 

Demonstrators could be heard chanting, “…not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran.” 

In a 2016 speech, the Secretary-General of Lebanon’s Shi’a militant group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah said that “the budgets for food, arms, and missiles of Hezbollah are all supplied by the Islamic Republic of Iran. As long as Iran has money, we have money.” Estimates of Iran’s funding for the Lebanese group reach anywhere from $60 million to $1 billion a year.

It has been two weeks since the start of the ongoing protests in Iran, and the internet is finally restored. Yet, it’s still unclear whether the demonstrators’ sacrifices will bring about any change, or if the recent protests will be diffused like the ones before it, without a result. 

Earlier this week, The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued a statement saying that the “arrest of the rioters’ leaders has contributed significantly to calming the situation.”

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