By Natasha Phillips
27 Nov – Demonstrations in Iran are still spreading across the country as truck drivers, farmers, teachers and students extend protests over pay and working conditions. The government has responded with a slew of nationwide arrests, but the crackdown seems to be having little effect on the growing number of demonstrations and strikes.
Protests over the government’s management of the country began in December 2017, with the first demonstration taking place in Mashad, Iran’s second largest city. Questions were raised over who had started the demonstration, with some analysts suggesting that opposition groups were responsible, while other commentators thought that the protest was part of a grassroots movement organized by disillusioned members of the public living in the city.
The protest in Mashad was followed by several rallies opposing the government’s economic policies. These rallies were staged in a number of provinces across the country. At the same time, a series of pro-government rallies took place. Some media outlets in the U.S. called these rallies state-sponsored gatherings, while Iran’s semi official Fars News Agency claimed that those demonstrations which were sympathetic to the government were launched by Iranians who were angered by alleged illegal behavior during the original anti-government rallies.
One year on, protests are still in full swing and have been organized in over 70 towns and cities, with a combined total of some 15,000 demonstrators taking part.
The government’s response to rallies critical of its efforts has led to officials trying to insulate the country from what they say are harmful external, or Western, influences. The government began by banning English in primary schools and censoring media coverage, most notably through the blocking of social media platforms and general internet access in cities across the country.
The move has not prevented news about the escalating protests from spreading worldwide, as channels of communication remain open, mainly online. Internet restrictions have also not stopped Iranian citizens from communicating their frustrations to an international audience, as they turn to VPN software to bypass government-implemented blocks. Stepping up its efforts to stop the demonstrations, and their organization through social media, the government has now begun to arrest increasingly large numbers of protesters.
Although the government continues to warn its citizens that they will be imprisoned if they choose to protest, the threat does not seem to be stopping activists, who are opting to keep on demonstrating. Truckers have already covered over 70 cities as they protest over a shortage of spare parts and tires and the non-payment of transport fares. In an extraordinary display of defiance, truckers in Iran have also offered to lend their support to bus and taxi drivers frustrated by an economic crisis affecting the whole of the transport sector, despite reports that anywhere from 250 to 261 truckers have already been arrested across 19 provinces.
A new series of demonstrations were held on 22 and 23 November. A tweet from Kayhan London on 25th November shows a video clip of the truckers striking in the Bandar Imam Khomeini port. The truckers’ protests, which have so far been peaceful, also call on the government to release drivers arrested during previous demonstrations.
— KayhanLondon کیهان لندن (@KayhanLondon) November 25, 2018
Farmers in Isfahan, meanwhile, have been protesting for several months, with the latest demonstration taking place last week. They say the government’s insistence that the lack of water in the region is down to environmental factors is not true, and that the real reason behind the drought is down to government mismanagement. Farmers have accused officials of breaking the law over the alleged selling of water resources to Yazd, a province in Iran, bypassing farm owners who they say own the resource.
A spate of protests within the private sector has led to several more arrests, this time in southwestern Iran. Workers at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Mill in Ahvaz have held 17 days of strikes so far to highlight non-payment of salaries. Protesters say that they have not received wages for three months.
The demonstrations have caused concern among Iranian officials, as the protest has attracted significant attention which has seen a growing number of people join the movement. Officials have arrested and detained 17 workers, and have since released 13 of those arrested on bail. Three strikers are still in custody. Independent representation for laborers in Iran through labor unions is almost impossible. Iran’s employment laws do not allow the right to create labor unions unless they are approved and managed by government-sanctioned bodies like the Islamic Labor Council.
A second walkout over pay and high inflation, which included dozens of teachers in different locations in Iran on 13 November, led to the arrest of 12 teachers and the detention and questioning of 30 others, according to the Council for Coordination among Teachers Unions (The Council). On 22 November, Human Rights Watch released a statement in which it reported that Hashem Khastar, a high-profile member of the Teachers Union, had been arrested by officials after the first walkout and placed in a psychiatric hospital, where he was detained until his release on 19 November.
Women, children and parents also took part in the education sector’s strikes, which involved schools in over 40 cities in Iran. According to The Council, 12 teachers, two of whom were women, were arrested, 30 educational activists were detained and interrogated and at least 50 threatening messages were sent to teachers actively engaged in the protests. One of the teachers arrested was Fatemeh Bahmani. Fatemeh was detained on 13 November and is currently being kept in custody in Shiraz.
Students have not been deterred by the arrests. A student sit-in at Babol Noshirvani University of Technology took place a week later. The protest was eventually broken up by members of the government’s security forces. Though no arrests were made, the police claimed the protests had become violent, a claim which the students deny.
Students have continued to express their concerns over the ways in which governing bodies in Iran have behaved since coming to power forty years ago. A new letter emerged on Twitter 23 November, asking the Supreme Leader of Iran to offer a performance report on central government bodies since the regime came to power in 1979, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), other armed forces, the judiciary and the government’s media channels. The letter was written by members of a conservative student association based at the University of Tehran, and tweeted by a pro-reform MP, Mahmoud Sadeqi. The letter was also published on several other conservative sites, and calls for Ali Khamenei to deliver the report in person. Khamenei is known for shunning the spotlight, preferring instead to deliver speeches to a carefully selected audience.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, Michael Page, raised concerns last week over Iranian officials’ crackdown on what have so far been largely peaceful protests inside the country:
“Iranian authorities are punishing teachers and labor activists for exercising their collective bargaining rights and conducting peaceful protests that are essential freedoms for all workers… Authorities’ recent talk of ‘national unity and resistance against foreign pressure’ are empty words when they throw educators and labor activists in jail for demanding a fair wage.”