Iran is ranked as one of the least free (Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019) and most censored (Committee to Protect Journalists) countries in the world. However, that has not deterred thousands of Iranians from seeking freedom and justice. That’s why it was no surprise when Iranians took to the streets over the weekend to protest their government’s deliberate “lying and incompetence” and were met with violent repression as security forces used tear gas and live ammunition in an attempt to subdue protesters. These protests took place following several days of official denials by the Iranian government regarding its involvement in the shooting of an Ukrainian airliner – killing all 176 passengers onboard. The plane crash came hours after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US troops in retaliation for a drone strike at Baghdad airport that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force.
Protests regarding the crash spread across Iran to several other major cities on Sunday, including Kermanshah, Ahvaz, Rasht, Yazd, Semnan and Mashhad as crowds chanted “down with the deceptive government” and called for the release of all political prisoners. Iranian leaders, faced with international and domestic outrage, have sought to shift blame to western actors. Hardliners within the government believe that the U.S. and its allies in the region are fueling and exploiting internal discontent and have issued threats to civilian protesters against holding more large-scale vigils to mourn the victims of the plane crash. Further vigils were scheduled to take place in Tehran but were called off due to a heavy police presence.
Unfortunately, the violent crackdown on protesters is not a new response and falls exactly in line with the government’s characteristic reaction to civil protest and disrespect for internal dissent. As The Washington Post ‘s Global Opinion writer and a former prisoner in Iran, Jason Rezaian wrote, “ The completely avoidable shoot-down of the Ukrainian airliner offers just another reminder of how careless this regime is with the lives of its own citizens.” In November 2019, Tehran used deadly force, arrests and a prolonged internet blackout to contain nationwide protests over higher fuel prices. Another trick frequently employed is to block or ban the use of certain digital platforms used to organize protests such as Telegram, Facebook and Twitter. Previously, similar tactics were used to subdue and disperse crowds during the December 2017 protests and subsequently throughout 2018. Iranian authorities have systematically violated the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters. These reactive actions are on par with Iran’s dreadful human rights record which has been heavily criticized the international community.
Iran’s group-level repression of protesters have typically been paired with individually-directed attacks and arrests of protest leaders and other influential human rights defenders. Many of these brave individuals remain behind bars for their peaceful activism as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization has increased its targeting of human rights defenders and activists. The IRCG has also made a habit of targeting people who are allegedly perceived to have links with western academic, economic, and cultural institutions. Many of the accused remain in jail on vague charges such as “cooperating with a hostile state”, are deprived of due process, and are subjected to pro-government media smear campaigns.
Another aspect of Iran’s terrible human rights record lies in the regional proxy wars that it often engages itself in. In Syria, Tehran continues to provide the Assad Regime with military assistance and plays a hugely influential role alongside Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the negotiations. “Without Iranian military aide and financial largesse, al-Assad’s regime may have fallen long ago” (Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point) In Yemen, Iranian support of the Houthi rebels in its proxy war against Saudi Arabia has caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties and deaths, extreme food insecurity, and has displaced over 3.5 million citizens. Similarly, in Lebanon, Iran’s financial and military support of the terrorist organization known as Hezbollah has created humanitarian issues and grievances comparable in scope and nature to the Yemeni conflict. Iran’s continued instigation and involvement in these regional conflicts has greatly contributed to the region’s destabilization and worsened the human rights and refugee issues therein (.
While this weekend’s demonstrations denote Iranian civilians’ reaction to their government’s attack on the Ukrainian airliner, they also signify another challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s theocratic rule. The protests in November followed by the current insurrection continues to raise important questions about Iran’s human rights record and its leaders’ competency to rule the country.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.