Faced with significant economic difficulties due in particular to American sanctions, Iran has been shaken for several weeks by demonstrations, in particular following the lifting by the government of subsidies on flour and the increase in the prices of foodstuffs such as oil and dairy products.
The collapse on May 23 of a building under construction, against a backdrop of accusations of incompetence and corruption, in Abadan, in the province of Khuzestan, bordering Iraq, raised a new wave of indignation. Thirty-six people died, according to a latest report on Tuesday May 31. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for this tragedy. And the regional justice claimed to have arrested thirteen people, including the mayor of Abadan and two former mayors.
However, the protest no longer spares any authority, not even that of Ayatollah Khamenei, as evidenced by the slogans targeting him by name, according to images of demonstrations circulating on social networks.
Denounce the “clerical dictatorship” of Iran
The current movement is distinguished by its character “whistleblower of the Supreme Leader’s ‘clerical dictatorship’ and the desire to break with the regime”, explains Farhad Khosrokhavar, retired director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. The protest, which drains “middle and lower classes” hit by the generalized impoverishment, relates, on the one hand, to the “daily needs: bread, sugar, eggs, meat, basic products…” and, on the other hand, on “the corruption of the regime“.
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“There is a political-clientelist elite that is getting rich visibly, even now, and then there is the rest of society that is getting poorer”continues the sociologist, “we are faced with a class gap that has turned into a class abyss”.
Kasra Aarabi, senior Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute, also believes that “The protests are not only about the state of the economy, but about the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic”. The mobilization is spreading to cities as well as rural areas and the participation of workers, the popular base of the Islamic Republic, represents for the regime a reason for particular concern, he adds.
A building collapse, “an existential threat to the system”
On Sunday May 29, the national day of mourning for the tragedy, hundreds of people gathered in Abadan for a commemoration ceremony chanted slogans to cover the speech of a local representative of the Assembly of Experts, the college responsible for appointing, supervising and to possibly dismiss the Supreme Leader, Fars news agency reported. Others knocked down the state television camera and police urged people “to leave the street”said the Tasnim agency.
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For more than a week, nocturnal rallies have taken place in Abadan and other towns in Khuzestan to mourn the victims and demand that those responsible be brought to justice. Others were held on Friday May 27 in several cities in the center of the country, including Isfahan, Yazd and Shahin. Activists reported deaths in protests in mid-May even before the tragedy in Abadan, where riot forces were sent in and used live ammunition to restore calm, they say.
“It shows the fragility and instability of the Iranian regime: any incident can lead to massive demonstrations that can get out of control. Thus a building collapse appears as an existential threat to the system”says Mahmoud Amiry Moghaddam, director of the NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR), based in Oslo.
A “terrible repression”
“They know that the regime is formidable in its repression, nevertheless these movements develop in an erratic way, without organization and without political direction”, notes Farhad Khosrokhavar, excluding that in this form they can overthrow him, but rather “show more and more its illegitimacy”.
The protest spread to the stands of football fans: supporters of the Esteglal club in Tehran chanted “Abadan” during a recent match at the capital’s Azadi Stadium. In the cultural field, several Iranian filmmakers, including award-winning director Mohammad Rasoulof, published an open letter urging the security forces to “Throw down the weapons” in the face of anger “corruption, theft, incompetence and repression”.
As for the Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, receiving the prize for female interpretation at the Cannes festival on Saturday May 28, she declared in Persian: “My heart is with the men and women of Abadan”.
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