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Government can't meet economic challenges, former Iranian diplomat says

Protests in Tehran 30/12/2017
Protests in Tehran 30/12/2017 REUTERS

Iran warned on Sunday that protesters will "pay the price" after a third night of unrest saw mass demonstrations across the country, two people killed and dozens arrested. Videos on social media showed thousands marching across the country overnight in the biggest test for the Islamic republic since mass protests in 2009.


RFI talked to former top diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari, founder of the Iranian Center for Political Studies, an online think tank, and the General Secretary of the the Green Wave movement.

Also known as the Persian Awakening by the western media, Green Wave refers to a political movement that arose after the 2009 Iranian presidential election, in which protesters demanded the removal of the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.

Jan van der Made: What is happening with these protests?

Mehrdad Khonsari: It’s a natural reaction to worsening economic circumstances that people have been confronted with.The reaction of people has more to do with facing up to harsh economic realities. The result is the kind of demonstrations we have seen.

Of course in the midst of the demonstrations, other anxieties and other concerns also have come out. Essentially speaking, the government, which is in fact one of the better governments that Iran has had during the Islamic Republic [period], is simply incapable of meeting the economic challenges because of the structural problems that exist.

As such, despite the fact that it had public support, when it came to certain situations they cannot face, this is what happens.

There is [also] of course a great deal of fragmentation within the system and the opponents of the government within the regime have also tried to undermine the government. And all of these things have some sort of role to play.

Jan van der Made: Some analysts say that these demonstrations were started by some factions within the regime, notably the supporters of [former president.] Ahmadinejad, which then got out of hand, and became some sort of Frankenstein monster. Do you agree with that ?

Mehrdad Khonsari: I think that there is some truth in that, although I wouldn’t say that it is has come necessarily from the Ahmadinejad faction as the people who are trying to create this kind of scenario within the system are the main opponents of [current president Hassan] Rouhani, rather than anything else.

They are not just limited to the Ahmandinejad faction which is, I believe, incapable at this time of contributing to this level of protest. But certainly there is a great deal to be said about that, and I would agree that this kind of action was originally conceived by people trying to make the Rouhani government look bad.

Jan van der Made: How does this movement compare with that of 2009?

Mehrdad Khonsari: It is different, because the motivations behind it are completely different. People have not turned to the streets in order to demand their political rights. This was not started because of political objections to the system, or demand for greater human rights or greater democracy.

This was started because of worsening economic circumstances and the failure of the government to keep its economic promises and contain inflation and price rises and issues of that nature.

So the fundamentals behind this are completely different. But of course when people come out into the streets under one pretext, and they are able to sustain themselves over a period of time, then other issues also rise. So the other underlying factors also gain prominence, and that’s when shouts like ‘death to the dictator’ and things like that come up.

Jan van der Made: Enemies of the current regime in Iran, notably Israel, the People’s Mujaheddin, and also US president Donald Trump are quick to point out that these demonstrations prove that now the Iranian people can stand up against the regime. Will Tehran be able to contain this movement?

Mehrdad Khonsari: Right now, it is too early to predict how the regime will control this. So far these demonstrations are not what you call out of control.

And there are certain elements within the regime, primarily within the government that see these kind of demonstration as some sort of positive think in the sense that it allows certain protests and demonstrations to let the steam out of things.

Obviously the number of arrests and the kind of arrests that have been made are not of a nature that threatens the system at this stage.

We have only had three day s [of protests]. But were this to continue to reach ten, fifteen days, then obviously this would have the effect of a critical mass which could lead to other things and lead to a situation that might become out of control.

The main difference between these protests and those of 2009 is that you see for example that the US has immediately jumped on this bandwagon, rather than the actions of the Obama administration in 2009 that simply refused to back the Iranian people at the time.

So there are differences of that nature. But as we speak it is too early to say how these demonstrations will progress and whether they will reach a stage where they will have a kind of momentum that really becomes unstoppable, and would require a much harsher level of treatment. So far I think that the regime has been able to contain it for a price that is acceptable.

Whether this price will become acceptable to the world, to the Iranian people, and whether the regime would be ready to pay that unacceptable price in order to retain itself, remains to be seen.

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