The ‘Persian Winter’ in Iran’s streets is an extension of the ‘Arab Spring’

The ‘Persian Winter’ in Iran’s streets is an extension of the ‘Arab Spring’
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Rising living costs, severe unemployment, widespread corruption, restrictions on human rights or oppression of minorities — what were the grievances that triggered the current wave of protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran?

In the past week, thousands of Iranians, from a diverse spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds, have taken to the streets following the institution of legislation that aimed to increase taxes and slash welfare benefits. The economic crisis that has seized the country in recent years, which stems from structural problems in the market, a weak private sector, excessive involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in the economy and widespread corruption, is severely detrimental to young Iranians.

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The signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement and the lifting of international sanctions may have led to the growth of the economy but it did not answer the economic woes of citizens. It has been almost two years since the sanctions were lifted and there is still severe unemployment — mostly among young people — declining salaries and inability to purchase homes, rising crime and extensive drug use.

 

But it is not just the economy that has been bothering the Iranian society. It is also the lack of civic rights, strict enforcement of the Islamic law and persecution of religious minorities and gays.

In recent years, deep social and cultural processes in Iran are taking place. Many young Iranians are growing increasingly distant from the values of the Islamic Revolution and adopting a western lifestyle, while challenging the enforcement of Islam in their country and acting to expand individual freedoms.

These processes accelerate the demand of the middle class and the young generation in the Islamic Republic for political and civic reforms, which poses a threat to the rule of the conservative-religious establishment, as well as a threat to the status of the Supreme Leader of Iran. The growing exposure of Iranians to Western culture, while adopting Western behavioral patterns, accelerates a social trend of secularization in the Islamic theocracy. This trend worries the religious establishment especially since it is occurring parallel to the erosion in the status of clerics in the last several years.

The "Arab Spring" — a wave of public protests and demonstrations throughout the Middle East, challenging some of the region’s entrenched authoritarian regimes — began in Iran as early as 2009. The presidential elections in June, which produced controversial results because of the concern of widespread corruption, birthed the Green Movement, a new opposition to the regime. In an almost unprecedented wave of protests in Iran, millions of civilians took to the streets. The protests were repressed heavy-handedly and uncompromisingly by the regime, with an unknown number of protesters killed and the arrest of opposition leaders who are in prison to this day.

The events of 2009 are engraved in the consciousness of the Iranian leadership, and attempts since then to challenge the current regime or undermine the stability of its rule of the jurisprudence of the Islamic Republic, are met with harsh treatment.

The truth is that, since then, Iranians have never stopped protesting — in the streets but mostly in social media networks, where it is easier and safer. They have been protesting against the enforcement of the Islamic dress code; calling to change discriminatory legislation against women; criticizing the widespread nepotism in the public sector; marching in the streets to improve the social rights of 1.3 million teachers and labor rights of bus drivers and workers in the oil, sugar and mining industries; fighting for their currently non-existent right to establish independent labor organizations; and voicing their complaints over persecution of religious minorities and gays, the stifling of free speech, and governmental punishments for these “crimes” such as executions and torture.

The current uprising — which can be called the Persian Winter — is part of the ongoing Iranian Arab Spring. These protests were focused mostly on bringing much-needed economic reforms and ending corruption, and not about regime change or ending the Islamic theocracy. This is because a significant part of the middle class and the young generation prefers gradual and moderate changes over another revolutionary, comprehensive transformation, the results of which are unknown.

As of this moment, the Iranian regime is not in any danger, and it is willing to go as far as necessary, including sing fierce and violent actions, to preserve its grip on power.

Two-thousand-five-hundred years of Persian civilization, almost four decades of a Shiite-Muslim theocracy, and nine years of an Iranian Spring, should tell us to watch carefully for the next unexpected developments.

Ohad Shpak is a partner in an Israeli law firm. He served in Israel’s Military Intelligence and worked at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Washington Embassy.