Last Sunday, protests were recorded as taking place in at least 20 Iranian cities as the country’s roughly 18 million pensioners continued their activities over a declining quality of life and increasing scarcity of access to various food staples. Several protests have taken place on a similar scale since the beginning of this year, and it appears as if the pensioners’ activism is being accompanied by growing numbers of protests by younger Iranians, many of which express a broader political agenda and a persistent desire for regime change.
Pensioners have endorsed this message to some degree while remaining focused on the immediate goal of securing the means to their short-term survival at a time when more than 60 percent of the Iranian population, according to the regime itself, are living under the poverty line. In their most recent protests, many elderly activists joined their younger compatriots in urging a general boycott of the political process that regime authorities are attempting to promote in advance of their sham presidential election in June.
The regime’s sham parliamentary elections in February 2020, had the lowest level of voter turnout in the regime’s history. That same outcome was also driven by a longstanding electoral boycott movement, led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which urged the general population to deny legitimacy to the clerical system and “vote for regime change.”
This message has lately begun appearing in the forms of graffiti and banners in prominent locations throughout Iran, often accompanied by images of Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Mrs. Rajavi has personally commented on the pensioner protests and the youth activist movement in order to suggest that the establishment of such a transitional government may not be far off.
In a speech marking the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, last month, Mrs. Rajavi specifically pointed to a series of clashes between citizens and security forces in the southeastern border province of Sistan and Baluchestan, describing them as evidence that “the fire of the uprisings” was still alive in spite of the mitigating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. She was referring to a sequence of nationwide protest movements that began in the final days of 2017 and resulted in massive crackdowns by authorities who have remained fearful of direct challenges to their rule ever since.
The second major uprising, in November 2019, was almost immediately met with gunfire, at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In a subsequent report, Amnesty International confirmed that the Guards had been shooting to kill. Over the course of only several days of unrest, the regime’s security forces fatally shot over 1,500 peaceful protestors and wounded another 4,000. Some 12,000 were arrested around the same time, and another Amnesty report described the prevalence of torture in the jails that housed those detainees for months afterward.
Tehran spent months denying these accounts of the crackdown, even as the MEK gradually released the names and accompanying pictures of some 800 victims. The regime’s denials were further undermined by the fact that Reuters’ confirmation of the death toll cited anonymous sources from within the Iranian Interior Ministry. And just this week, the video was released which showed a member of the regime’s parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, recalling that he had raised objections to the killing on the street when they were still ongoing, only to be told by the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council that the strategy for confronting the November 2019 uprising would remain unchanged for as long as the unrest continued.
Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry and other regime institutions have continued to downplay the incident. In recent days, the Ministry’s deputy of security, Hossein Zolfaghari, attempted to revive a talking point that had first been presented to the public in May 2020. Though he acknowledged that the November 2019 uprising had given rise to violent clashes, he said that the resulting death toll was no greater than 230, even though some Iranian officials cited numbers nearly twice as high. This claim was exactly in line with the Ministry’s prior statements, which suggested that only a portion of the 200 to 250 fatalities could be attributed to security forces, but did not explain why it took more than six months to arrive at such a comparatively small but imprecise estimate.
Regime authorities have offered little public comment on the scale of 2019’s crackdown between then and now, and this naturally raises questions as to why the talking point is being revived in current circumstances. The growing signs of renewed unrest have made authorities simultaneously eager to temper the public’s outrage and to justify further crackdowns along the same lines. Indeed, Zolfaghari’s recent comments included recommendations for the establishment of a Security Task Force tasked with confronting protests related to the forthcoming presidential election.
If such a task force were to be associated with prior accounts of severe, violent crackdowns on dissent, it would likely engender even more backlash against the regime. Other Iranian officials seemed to anticipate this phenomenon in recent days, and while they did not necessarily express opposition to government crackdowns, they did warn the regime about the potential consequences of inflaming popular sentiment.
“If the mistakes of the past are not compensated and no solution is found to change the current situation, great damage will await us. People will react at an opportune time,” said Member of Parliament Ahamad Alirezabeigi. He then went on to list a number of known grievances in addition to the public’s experience with repressive authority. Citing a worsening economic situation that has been widely attributed to government mismanagement, Beigi gave a likely timeframe for the emergence of uprisings similar to those seen in January 2018, November 2019, and January 2020.
“The effects of these catastrophes will be evident in the upcoming elections,” he said. It was only the latest in a series of statements to appear in state media that seemed to acknowledge an increasingly organized Resistance to the ruling system and to warn about the potential for the unrest that directly challenges that system. Mrs. Rajavi underscored the evidence for the regime’s anxiety in a speech on March 27. “The state-run media describe Iranian society as a powder keg that could explode at any moment,” she said. “The people of Iran also want to boycott the upcoming so-called presidential election because they want a free and democratically elected republic.”
With months to go before that election, the people’s anti-regime sentiment is already finding more and more outlets in scattered protests throughout Iran.