Last Thursday (December 28, 2017), a few cities in Iran saw demonstrations by small groups of people protesting against the rising prices of essential commodities. In the next few days, as these rallies became bigger and more violent, some also raised political slogans against the country’s leadership. As of January 3, more than 20 people have been killed in disturbances across several cities across the country. While the Western media has been quick to brand these rallies as “growing unrest” and an “uprising” against the Iranian “regime”, the local media has called it the work of “foreign agents” trying to foment trouble in Iran.
To understand the unsettled situation in Iran, a country very important for India from the strategic and economic point of view, The Wire spoke to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a well-known Iranian scholar and professor at Tehran University.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1966 to an Iranian professor and a political prisoner under the Shah regime, Marandi spent his first 13 years in the US, where he grew to love NFL football and the Dallas Cowboys. He was raised in an upscale neighbourhood in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1970s. When his family moved back to Iran after the Shah regime was overthrown in the revolution of 1979, he started to improve his Farsi and getting to know his country better. Three years later, he fought in the Iran-Iraq war, during which he was injured four times.
Today, Marandi is professor of North American studies and dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran. In an interview with Shobhan Saxena, he put the on-going demonstrations in Iran in perspective.
Excerpts from the interview:
This past week, there have been a number of demonstrations in some cities across Iran. What is the nature of these rallies and what are the main issues being raised by the people participating in these demonstrations?
Over the past few months, we have had a series of demonstrations after the collapse of a number of financial institutions, resulting in many people losing their money. These people have been demonstrating to put pressure on the government in order to receive compensation. At times, they would demonstrate in front of the parliament, and last week they protested in Mashhad. As they were carrying out their peaceful protest in Mashhad, a smaller group of people began chanting very radical slogans among the crowd, and they were also behaving violently. In the following day, we then saw violent protests spread to different cities, and it was becoming clear that these protests were being coordinated by Western-backed groups based in Europe and the United States. They were openly using social media apps, encouraging people to gather in different areas to attack public property and even police stations. They even taught people how to make Molotov cocktails and other types of weapons. The legitimate and peaceful protests and protesters that were about economic grievances gradually discontinued protesting because they saw that the violent rioters had a completely different agenda.
After a couple of days it was just riots, yet they were called demonstrations in the Western media and the footage that the Western media would use was mostly from the first couple of days and sometimes not even from events in Iran. So the demonstrations were peaceful and they were focused on economic issues – but the rioters were a different set of people.
Apparently there is a growing anger among the people against the country’s economic situation. How widespread is this discontent and what are the main hardships being faced by people in general?
There is definitely discontent, but that has very little to do with the riots. Iran is a country where all the political leaders are elected, either through direct or indirect elections. And President [Hassan] Rouhani was just recently elected with a turnout of roughly 73%. Discontent was reflected by those people who were demonstrating peacefully, but the violent rioters who were looting banks, burning down public buildings, destroying bus stations and privately- and publicly-owned vehicles, and who also killed a number of police officers, they are pursuing something else.
Of course, the economic problems are linked to mismanagement and corruption, which exist all over the world, but also to the fact that the US has not abided by its side of the nuclear agreement. Despite the fact that Iran has given many concessions regarding its peaceful nuclear programme, the US has kept the sanctions in place. Also we had a severe drought, which is itself causing significant problems.
The nuclear deal with the West was supposed to give a boost to Iran’s economy but the US has imposed new sanctions against Iran. Do you think the US has taken Iran for a ride by neutralising its nuclear programme and re-imposing sanctions?
Unfortunately, the United States has played a very dishonest game. Both under [Barack] Obama and [Donald] Trump, they have repeatedly violated the nuclear agreement. As a result, Iran has not been able to normalise its economic relations with its economic partners, and the economy continues to suffer. The Americans have shown to the Iranians that their commitments are meaningless.
Also, there was a pro-government rally in Tehran on Saturday. Was this show of support for the government a warning to those participating in “anti-government” rallies?
There have been many pro-government and anti-riot demonstrations over the last few days across the country, and some of them have been very large. However, they were not directed against the peaceful protests, but rather directly against the violent rioters. One of the more saddening events of the last few days was when the rioters commandeered a fire engine and pushed it down a hill. The fire engine crashed into a car and crushed a whole family.
Though the number of participants in the rallies has been quite small, the Western media, especially BBC and the Guardian, is projecting it as something big. Why do you think they are projecting these rallies as an anti-government uprising?
The Western media has always been very hostile towards Iran, and they consistently portray Iran in a very negative light. So this is nothing new. Iran’s independent foreign policy and its opposition to apartheid in Palestine are always causes for anger in Western government circles. However, it may be interesting for people to know that BBC Persian and VOA Persian have been doing their utmost to fuel the flames and to manufacture a crisis over the past week. It is ironic that Western governments complain about unproven allegations about Russian interference in their internal affairs, yet they blatantly interfere in the internal affairs of others, in ways which lead to the death of innocent people.
US President Donald Trump, who has openly criticised Black Lives Matter and women’s rallies in the US, has warned the Iranian government against a “crackdown” on demonstrators in Iran. Why do you think he is interfering in Iran’s internal matter?
Trump has shown support for neo-Nazis. He supports police officers who kill innocent African-Americans, and when a person was killed in clashes in Charlottesville, he refused to sympathise with the victim. On the other hand, he helps Saudi Arabia destroy Yemen and create mass starvation there. What can you expect from such a person?
Iran has emerged as a major player in the region in recent years, especially after its role in taking ISIS out of Syria and Iraq. Do you think that is the reason why Washington is taking an aggressive attitude towards Iran?
I think Iran’s successes in the region in defeating extremism, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, has angered the Saudi and Israeli regimes, as well as the United States’ political establishment. They would do almost anything to hurt Iran.
Iranian democracy was sabotaged by the US-UK combine in the 1950s. Since the 1979 revolution, they have not stopped talking against the Iranian “regime”. Do you see a threat of the current government being toppled by a colour-coded revolution, as has happened in Ukraine, Egypt and other countries in recent years?
No, I do not believe that the United States has the ability to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution, the United States, from almost the very start, attempted to stir up internal unrest as we have seen in the US embassy documents. They then supported Saddam Hussein and gave him chemical weapons to use against Iranian soldiers and civilians a well as against his own people. They imposed sanctions on Iran, they shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing almost 300 people, they destroyed Iranian oil installations, they imposed severe sanctions on ordinary Iranians and they have supported terrorist groups to weaken Iran. However, the Iranian political order is a product of indigenous culture and values, combined with popular participation and democracy, and therefore, it has a high degree of popular legitimacy. The US and its allies will not succeed.
Shobhan Saxena is an independent journalist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.