Violent Protests in Iran and Associated Risks
2 Jan 2018
Widespread protests in Iran that began on the 28 December 2017 have now persisted for six days. State media has reported at least 450 arrests and 21 deaths, including a policeman who was shot and killed in the city of Najafabad. Four other police officers were also injured by gunfire. The protests began in Masshad, triggered by a substantial rise in the costs of staple foodstuffs, but rapidly spread nationwide with major cities experiencing some level of civil unrest.
- These protests mark the first substantial wave of unrest since the 2009 Green Movement caused mass disruption in response to disputed election results.
- At least 21 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the riots across numerous major cities.
- The focus of the riots has expanded from price increases to include Iran’s foreign policy and President Hassan Rouhani.
Civil Unrest: Widespread protests in Iran that began on the 28 December 2017 have now persisted for six days. State media has reported at least 450 arrests and 21 deaths, including a policeman who was shot and killed in the city of Najafabad. Four other police officers were also injured by gunfire. The protests began in Masshad, triggered by a substantial rise in the costs of staple foodstuffs, but rapidly spread nationwide with major cities experiencing some level of civil unrest. In response to the protests, the Iranian government enacted a partial blackout of some social media platforms, such as the popular messaging services Telegram, in order to prevent protesters from coordinating further protests. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani also issued a statement declaring that people in the country have the right to protest but warned that violence is unacceptable. Over 01 and 02 January the protests have intensified with attacks against police stations, burning of vehicles, and the sporadic use of firearms.
Local media has focused on limited instances of looting and vandalism perhaps in an attempt to portray they entire movement as violent or disorderly, rather than motivated by economic and political grievances.
SOLACE GLOBAL COMMENT
This wave of unrest was triggered by a substantial rise in the cost of staple foodstuffs. These conditions are the result of persistent economic difficulties, despite the increase in foreign trade facilitated by the relaxation of sanctions. The Iranian working class remains constrained by a stagnant economy and a youth unemployment rate of 29 per cent. By some estimates, Iranian citizens have become 15 per cent poorer in real terms over the last 10 years and the Rial has sunk to 42,900 against the U.S. dollar from 36,000 on 01 January 2017. These conditions have resulted from a combination of long-term economic mismanagement and the lingering effects of the sanctions imposed against Iran due to its nuclear program. It is suspected that the benefit of sanctions being lifted has not trickled down to the wider population due to the high levels of corruption in Iran. The link between high-level regime officials, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, and major businesses have facilitated the anger towards the economic situation shifting to wider dissatisfaction with the government.
Unlike the 2009 unrest, which was led by middle class protesters from Tehran seeking to dispute election results, the current protests appear to be led by those worst affected by the sanctions, the working class, the unemployed, and those from poorer neighbourhoods of provincial towns. The wider appeal and support for these protests, among a group typically seen as regime supporters, is likely to hamper the authorities’ ability to rapidly contain the unrest. An indicator of the unrest’s severity is that a number of protesters have directed anger specifically at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, breaking a taboo surrounding the man who has been supreme leader of Iran since 1989. There have been reports of chants of ‘death to Khamenei’, along with similar calls directed against prominent members of the Iranian government. With the majority of the government directly under the Ayatollah and President Rouhani’s personal influence, there appears little opportunity for them to deflect the blame against them.
Slogans and signs displayed by protesters suggest widespread dissatisfaction at the Rouhani government’s substantial expenditure on aid and weapons to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine. It is likely that these foreign interventions are resented by many Iranians who would prefer their leadership to focus on immediate improvement of domestic issues and living conditions. Easing the discontent may require a broad reshaping of both domestic and foreign policy and the implementation of measures to eradicate the widespread corruption which has fuelled protests. The challenge of fighting corruption in Iran is substantial; Iran is among one of the most corrupt countries in the world, coming 131st out of 176 in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Index of 2016. This result is closely tied to the structural and symbiotic relationship between the upper echelons of the regime and business.
President Hassan Rouhani made a televised call for calm on Sunday, saying Iranians had the right to criticise but must not cause unrest. This demonstrates little more than the government’s recognition of the protests, no indication of further measures to effectively mollify or suppress the demonstrations have been noted. At present, violence appears likely to escalate. Local sources reported that protesters were attacked by members of the Basiji paramilitary group as well as facing conventional police. Basiji militias were implicated in a number of fatal clashes during the unrest in 2009.
On 02 January, Khamenei issued a statement indicating that foreign governments and intelligence services were responsible for the unrest. The secretary of the Supreme National Security Council issued a supporting statement blaming the United States, Britain, and Saudi Arabia by name. The Iranian government and its state media have an extensive history of depicting local unrest as the result of underhand foreign influence. This apparent fear of conspiracies was fuelled by foreign funded coups against the fledgling Iranian Republic during the cold war, and in support of the Shah prior to 1979. Since the turn of the century, however, such rhetoric appears principally intended to distract the population from domestic mismanagement. Depending on how firmly the regime pushes this message with regards to recent unrest, this has the potential to substantially impact the security environment for foreign travellers in the country, beyond that of civil unrest alone; pro-regime activists may specifically target foreigners for violent actions, disruption or intimidation. Foreign travellers detained in Iran are frequently subjected to charges of espionage, regardless of a valid basis for such claims. Such charges are typically accompanied by limited consular access and poor legal representation. Travellers should also be aware that Iran does not recognise dual-citizenship, and such individuals may be denied all consular aid if detained. During a time of heightened tensions, the authorities are more likely to interpret any suspicious actions by foreigners as cause for arrest. Captives may be subjected to degrading treatment as the regime often seeks to use detainees as bargaining chips for international concessions in support of Iran’s regional objectives.
SECURITY ADVICECivil UnrestHigh
Travellers are advised that non-essential travel to Iran should be considered carefully until the present crisis is resolved. Should a journey be essential, travellers should be aware that Iran has implemented enhanced domestic security measures, particularly in major cities such as Mashhad and Tehran. Increased checkpoints have already been noted as well as security patrols.Â If travelling within country, it is vital that travellers anticipate this and adhere fully to the instructions of security forces; opposition may result in a forceful response.
It is recommended that protests are avoided. It is likely police will use aggressive measures against demonstrators given recent history and the warnings issued by President Rouhani. Political gatherings may initially seem peaceful but can escalate quickly into violence. It would be advisable for travellers to maintain a low profile in the short-term, particularly online, and monitor local events. Where possible, it is recommended to contact your travel provider to assess options to leave the country.
Solace Global would advise clients to employ enhanced security measures when visiting Iranâ airport meet and greet and the use of a pre-booked, locally vetted driver for the length of a visit should be minimum security precaution. All travellers are advised to utilise travel tracking and intelligence software in order that employers may effectively exercise duty of care, and travellers can be informed about changes in their security environment.
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