A Simple Truth About the Protests in Iran

A wave of protests hit Iran this past week, shaking the nation and its ruling regime, to the core. More than a decade after widespread protests over electoral fraud captured the world’s attention, the Iranian people are back in the streets with a vengeance. Reports of demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the country included footage of protestors setting fire to banks and government buildings, clashing with security forces, and chanting slogans calling for an end to the theocracy.

Often the discourse surrounding protests and freedom in Iran has been co-opted to serve a particular agenda or narrative. For too long the people of Iran have been viewed simply as pawns in a broader geo-poltical chess game, seemingly incapable of having true agency or wanting basic and universal freedoms.

Understanding what is taking place in Iran does not require explanation by “experts”, or nuanced geopolitical analysis. It requires awareness of Iran’s history, and an understanding that people everywhere desire basic rights and freedom. These protests are about more than economic frustrations, but embody the rage and determination of a generation that has grown up under the repression of a brutal theocratic autocracy.

Iran is a country of young people. It is estimated that nearly 60% of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. The deep-seated opposition to the ruling theocracy is just as much a demographic reality as it is an issue of economic mismanagement or political instability.

In the first decade of rule the regime stamped out all forms of political opposition, culminating in 1988 with the massacre of thousands of political prisoners. For Iranians like myself, born after the 1979 revolution, the darkness of the ruling theocracy has not only shaped our first memories, but directed our opposition. Just as repression and brutality have become hallmarks of this regime, perseverance and resilience have come to characterize Iran’s movement for change.

The roots of today’s protests run deep through the decades. Many younger Iranian’s got their first taste of politics during the 1999 student uprising, only to rise up again during the summer of 2009, in what many dubbed the first of the so called “Twitter Revolutions.” Now in 2019, we see the same 10 year pattern of resistance culminating in the most uncompromising expressions of anger the nation has seen since the Shah was ousted in 1979.

The protests that have taken place across the country appear different in form and substance from 2009. Footage compiled by Radio Free Europe shows protestors hurling rocks at riot police, and dodging bullets and firehouses. The protests have been marked by the burning of governmental buildings, banks, and gas stations in major cities. Confrontation with the establishment is not an unintended consequence, but a clear goal of these demonstrations, and the message is clear, they are ready to tear the system down.

The rapid retaliation by the regime also stands in stark contrast to 2009. Amnesty International has reported more than 100 deaths in the country in less than a week of protests, while the death toll after weeks of protests in 2009 was reported at 72. Many in the country fear that the actual numbers will spike, as the regime moves to censor information during a brutal crackdown. Authorities have taken unprecedented steps to cut off communication, imposing a nationwide shutdown of the internet, reportedly cutting off internet access for 95% of the country. Oracle has called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”

The shocking brutality and swift censorship are indicative of a simple truth. This is a regime that lacks any real solutions to the demands of a generation who want not only economic justice, but systematic change. The regime uses bloody repression and restrictions because it is incapable of reform. It has no future, and maintains its lifeline through tyranny and bloodshed.

The Iranian people are risking everything when they take to the streets, raise their voices and demonstrate that they want change. Now more than ever, it is important for all of us to understand the simple truth about what is taking place in Iran. The fiery uprising in Iran may have been sparked by the removal of fuel subsidies, but the embers of resistance have been burning for decades.

Hamid Yazdan Panah is a human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay area.