Iranian leaders must hear voices of the people

A grass-roots movement is sweeping the nation involving the young and old, poor and wealthy, and past bloodshed has to be avoided

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 1:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 1:29am

Iran’s elite have a record of not listening to their people. There is every risk that growing protests over economic and political grievances will be brutally suppressed, as happened during the last major nationwide demonstrations in 2009. With the Middle East so fragile and Saudi Arabia and US President Donald Trump eager to undermine the country’s regime, Iran’s leaders cannot ignore the demands of protesters. Instead of intolerance and guns, they have to turn to dialogue and negotiations.

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President Hassan Rowhani has sent conflicting signals. He has admitted Iranians have legitimate grievances and the right to protest, although he warned of the consequences of violence. The president is a relative moderate in a complex political system led by conservative clerics and headed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has at his command the nation’s most powerful security institution, the Revolutionary Guard. Even though more than 20 people have been killed since protests began last Thursday, there is no evidence yet that the guards, Shiite militias or plain clothes security police, behind the scores of deaths and thousands of arrests eight years ago, have been mobilised.

But nor is there a sign that leaders are willing to reach out to protesters. Confusing matters is that the demonstrations broke out city by city across the nation for an array of reasons, most economic, but increasingly political. Rowhani was elected for a second term in May largely for promises of fiscal reform and an improvement in livelihoods, with the removal of Western sanctions over a deal struck on the country’s nuclear programme offering hope. But the economy is sputtering; the protests began in one city over rising food prices and quickly spread to include outrage about corruption, the privileges of those in power, the lack of an opposition and costly military ventures in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

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Trump’s frequent comments further fog the situation. His calls for regime change and claim that “the world is watching” imply help is on hand for the protesters, but all that is likely is more such rhetoric. He has angered Muslims and Arabs by acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and dismayed Iranians by opposing economic relief for their country and banning them from travelling to the United States on security grounds. By using the protests for political gain, he is muddying the waters by giving Tehran the excuse that Washington is behind the demonstrations.

Trump has interfered enough. A grass-roots movement is sweeping Iran and its voices, unlike in 2009, involve a cross-section of the nation’s people, from young to old, the poor to wealthy. Past bloodshed has to be avoided; Iran’s leaders have to heed the calls.