Tehran’s response to this week’s anti-government protests in Iran has been harsh and reminiscent of the state response to the post-election uprising of 2009.
Back then, Iranians contested the re-election of former ultra-conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by taking to the streets in support of reformist candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi, and decrying election fraud.
A key difference this time around is that the leader of Iran’s reformist movement — former president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami — has joined centrist President Hassan Rouhani and hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei in denouncing the protesters as basically rioters, hooligans and opportunists.
Mr Khatami was a pivotal figure in supporting Mr Mousavi and motivating the 2009 uprisings. While branded as a singular Green Movement, many Iranians active in 2009 expressed distinct and varied socio-political visions and aims.
There were multiple issues and grievances, but the focal point was election fraud and key political players took leading roles. This time there is no such commitment or compromise with actors who represent any official political party.
Protesters are uncompromising and unambiguous in their demands, which revolve around employment, inflation, suppression of civil liberties, and misuse of resources for Iran’s expensive geopolitical machinations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries.
Nor are they pulling any punches, calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. Their view is that the reformists have not delivered on their promises and Iran’s democratic experiment is crumbling.
But tellingly, there has been no significant call from protesters to release Mr Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard from house arrest, or their reformist colleague Mehdi Karoubi.
Consider the effect of Australian sanctions
The nuances characteristic of these recent protests, which began in the north-eastern city of Mashhad, have been taking shape over decades, if not longer, and are in some ways intertwined with Australian politics.
Iran-Australia relations must be factored in to understand some of the complexities, particularly Australia’s amplification of the international sanctions regime and its border politics, which involves the indefinite detention of refugees. The two issues are deeply connected.
The brutal crackdown of 2009 sparked a dramatic increase in Iranians fleeing the country. Socio-economic status renders an individual particularly vulnerable to state control and suppression.
Conversely, targeted pressure from the state weakens one’s financial opportunities and stifles social mobility.
Iran’s socio-political dimensions involve an inseparable link between state oppression, foreign interference and economic isolation, a crippled economy, and a disenfranchised population.
Australia’s sanctions — dating back over a decade — have contributed to producing new sectors of marginalised peoples within Iran, or reinforcing already marginalised communities and groups.
An important factor for interpreting the current protests is the how a combination of international sanctions and government oppression are increasing the number of disempowered citizens and, as we are witnessing, grinding them down to the point of exhaustion and desperation.
Australia and the sanctions regime
The nuclear deal with Iran promised to relax international sanctions and Iran has started to enter the global economy (UNSC Resolution 2231), although the US embargo on trade and other significant sanctions remain in place. Australia has continued to apply its autonomous sanctions in addition to those stipulated by the UN.
The impact of the sanctions has been indiscriminately affecting a population of over 80 million, and Australia’s additional sanctions have intensified the pressure on average Iranians.
In 2013 Australia’s then foreign minister Bob Carr announced that Australia would be ramping up its sanctions on Iran to stifle its nuclear project. In response to Iran’s persistence in continuing its uranium enrichment program, Mr Carr stated: “These sanctions further increase pressure on Iran to comply with its nuclear non-proliferation obligations and with UN Security Council resolutions and to engage in serious negotiations on its nuclear program.”
The impact from over a decade of sanctions has contributed significantly to problems ranging from pollution and acquiring essential medicine, to depression and anxiety associated with job security and the lack of closure in relation to social and cultural projects. And it is ordinary citizens that bear the brunt of these policies.
Protests now on the streets of Iran are partly reacting to the broken promises made by the Rouhani Government regarding the reconstruction and improvement of the economy once sanctions started to be lifted.
When stripped of the power to support oneself and one’s family financially within Iran’s social environment, exploitation and intimidation are inevitable — whether from representatives of the state or other influential and malignant individuals (often connected somehow to the state). And it is this factor that provides insight into the complexities of persecution in Iran that makes it difficult to analyse reasons for fleeing and claims for protection.
These socio-politico-economic dynamics do not fit neatly with official categories and definitions.
The politically constructed category of “economic refugee” is damaging and misleading. In most cases, economic hardship and social marginalisation in Iran are consistent with political persecution.
The view from Manus Island
With the centrist Mr Rouhani in power, Iran and the US under former president Barack Obama began repairing hostilities. However, human rights was not made a priority and visa restrictions were introduced against Iranian nationals planning to visit the US, many of whom have family members who are US citizens (this was then reinforced by President Donald Trump). The ban on using the US visa waiver program also affected Iranian-Australians planning to travel to the States.
After 2009 an increased number of Iranians sought protection in Australia.
Weakened socio-economic status often leaves one vulnerable to a culture of political and social intimidation, and with a decreasing middle class marginalisation is becoming the norm in Iran.
This situation is particularly precarious for those minoritised based on religion, ethno-religious or racial identity, refugee status, and women.
Farhad Bandesh is an ethnic Kurd from Iran stuck on Manus Island. He analyses the situation of marginalised communities in a way that highlights the combined roles of political suppression and economic discrimination:
“The problem in Iran is that the political system has damaged the nation’s economy and injured the people. The sanctions have played a crucial role in weakening this regime, and this also restricts the distribution of wealth.
“When we have a situation where these factors are impacting on a nation it is obvious that the people’s everyday lives will inevitably become harder and harder. They will have no choice but to protest and ultimately revolt against an oppressive Government…
“Minorities experience distinctive forms of oppression, do you remember the events around the Kermanshah (Kurdistan Province) earthquake? Do you remember how the Government did not help one bit? Also consider the Kurdish kulbars (couriers) who risk their lives to earn an honest living, they are targets for the Iranian police and the sepah (Revolutionary Guard).”
Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani also analyses the situation from Manus Island:
“These events that are taking place in Iran are an uprising of the forgotten people… this is how I describe it. The middle classes in Iran have not really been an integral part of these protests, they started in the small towns and then arrived in Tehran. However, they did not intensify in the capital.
“The protests are mainly in the small towns, especially in places where discrimination is extreme and economic hardship is intense. For example they rose up in Ilam, in Kermanshah, in Lorestan Province… these are the forgotten people. They are people who do not receive mention in the media… but they exist, and it is they who have experienced the most harm from the international sanctions.
“They have had to withstand systematic discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination from religion ideology in the past. And now is their time, they have grabbed an opportunity to say we are here, we exist.
“They are millions in number, millions of human beings, millions who have been crushed by the sanctions and the terrible economic policies in Iran.”
Khamenei, predictably, associated the protesters with Iran’s ‘enemies’, while Washington responded to the violent crackdown by promising more sanctions. A growing part of Iran’s demographic are being excluded and increasingly more stigmatised because of their resistance to the theocracy.