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Iran: The Message and Implications of the November 2019 Uprising

Behbahan - Iran protests in November 2019
Behbahan – Iran protests in November 2019

The November 2019 uprising was a turning point as it had a major impact on the regime’s standing both domestically and internationally. As many experts have observed, this uprising laid bare the regime’s vulnerability and illegitimacy vis-a-vis the Iranian people, which explains why it has had to resort to stepped-up belligerent policies regarding its nuclear and missile programs as well as its malign interference in the region.

The sudden tripling of gasoline prices sparked the November 2019 protests, which spread like wildfire to 200 cities nationwide. In a matter of a few hours, the protests became a political manifestation of rejecting the ruling theocracy, reflected not only in the chants of “death to the dictator,” “Death to Khamenei,” but also in the people’s onslaught, especially by the youth and the impoverished citizenry, against government centers and institutions, directly responsible for plunder and repression.

The ferocious scale of protests and the inability of the security forces to contain their spread terrified the authorities. Fearful that the continuation of the uprising may threaten the regime’s survival, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to “do whatever it takes” to stop the uprising. In the carnage that ensued, the security forces gunned down over 1,500 protesters, many shot in the head and chest..

In 2017 and 2018, Iran was also the scene of large-scale protests, but what occurred in 2019, both in terms of the intensity of the uprising and the regime’s ruthless crackdown, far exceeded the earlier upheavals.

In a nutshell, November 2019 represented the outpouring of decades of vented anger and frustration by the Iranian people over the disastrous policies of the ruling religious tyranny.

Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat told the state-run Sharq daily in November 2021, “the November 2019 uprising was different from any other social movement in Iran in the last 40 years, including widespread protests in 2009 and 2018.” In comparing the major Iran protests in 2019 with the Arab Spring, Bayat adde: “These protests are the collective actions of various social groups that demand profound economic and social changes. Now, new means of communication, such as the Internet, Twitter, Telegram, etc., have made the mobilization easier and faster. There is a high dissatisfaction in society. There are large groups of activists, the social demand for change is clear, and the government is not accountable in practice. Under these circumstances, these tools and methods transform separate protests by different groups such as women, workers, villagers, the unemployed or the youth into a nationwide uprising.”

“In November 2019, protests by urban poor and middle-class poor collided. The members of the middle-class poor are educated, holding university degrees. They know what is going on in the world. They are fully aware of social media technology and how to use them. They have the aspiration of the middle class, but they have joined the poor class,” Sharq quoted Bayat, describing a new social class and generation which consists of young people.  “Many of these people are unemployed or have low-income and unstable jobs. Their occupations are not related to their field of expertise or education. Many of these people are forced to live in poor areas or shantytowns.”

The uprising had another stark message as well: The Iranian people rejected both regime factions, the so-called moderates, and the hardliners. Ironically, it was Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the Interior Minister serving in the so-called moderate government of Hassan Rouhani, who unleashed the security and repressive forces. This was contrary to what Iran pundits had tried to imply for many years, that Iran’s citizens are only interested in reform, which could be brought about through the electoral process. If anything, the nationwide boycott of the parliamentary and and the presidential elections in February 2020 and June 2021, respectively, made it palpably clear that the Iranian people have absolutely no faith in the electoral process, which has amounted to nothing but a tightly controlled, rigged and sham masquerade, in which only regime’s die-heart loyalists with absolute fealty to the Supreme Leader are allowed to participate.

Indeed, the regime fragile state and the society’s explosive potential prompted Khamenei to do what he had refrained from doing. Through the subservient and unelected vetting body, the Guardian Council, he purged senior regime stalwarts from his own ‘principlist’ faction, like Ali Larijani, who was the parliament speaker for 12 years to ensure the unimpeded ascension to presidency of his chief henchman, the judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi.

By ensuring the ‘election of Raisi, notorious for his role in the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, 90% of whom were the Mujahedin-e Khalq activists, Khamenei sought to close ranks and consolidate his grip on power to deal with a multitude of irremediable social, economic, and political crises engulfing his regime.

Women’s Role in the November 2019 uprising

During the November 2019 uprising, Iranian women led many protests. Their effective role prompted the state-run media and officials to compare them to the women within the ranks of the Iranian opposition, the MEK. It is worth noting that women have been leading the MEK for the past three decades.

“Women’s special role in the [uprising] and provoking the youth to attack the centers [of oppression] was much similar to the MEK women,” wrote the state-run Javan daily in 2019, an outlet linked to the IRGC. “Women had become leaders in those unrests, and this raises many questions,” Javan added.

“The special leading role of women in recent unrests was quite remarkable,” wrote the state-run Khabar-e Fouri website in 2019. “In different parts, mainly in Tehran’s suburbs, women played a leading role. They had uniforms, aged between 30 to 35 years, and each had a different responsibility. One of them recorded videos, the other stopped vehicles, and the other provoked people to join protests. This is very alarming.”

Interestingly, Iran’s state media have acknowledged that “Maryam Rajavi controls streets.”

An organized Uprising

According to Iran’s state media and observers, the November 2019 uprising was well organized. While people were angry over years of oppression, they did not indiscriminately vandalize shops or houses, and only targeted the regime’s banks and centers of oppression.
“Organized violence was the unique features of the recent unrests,” Javan daily wrote in December 2019, adding that people attacked “dozens of police stations, Basij and IRGC headquarters.”

Although the regime managed to suppress the November 2019 uprising, it is strategically deadlocked. With no solutions to offer for the Iranian people’s basic demands and the deepening crises permeating the society, the mullahs only recourse is to continue its nuclear and missile programs and regional adventurism. But doing so, at the cost of plundering the national wealth, will only increase the society’s explosive state that will inevitably lead to more uprisings in the near future.

For its part, the international community should refrain from providing any lifelines to the regime and instead stand with millions of Iranians who are determined to bring to an end the 43-year nightmarish rule of the medieval mullahs.