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Two Years After the Aban Protests, Iran Faces Increased Unrest

Two years have elapsed since Iran brutally repressed the November 2019 mass protests (also called the Aban protests) that claimed more than 1,500 lives. These protests, triggered by an overnight hike in gas prices, spread widely to virtually every province of the country.  Protesters were exposed to some of the most ruthless forms of state repression. The regime deployed anti-aircraft guns, tanks, exploding ammunition, shotguns, tear gas and rubber bullets against its own citizens. Faced with the increasingly difficult challenge of quashing popular dissent, the government disconnected Iran from the internet for several consecutive days, trying not only to prevent the protesters from communicating with each other, but to prevent images of the protests from reaching an international audience.

Yet, two years after the Islamic Republic managed to brutally suppress of the greatest challenges to its survival, Iran is anything but stable. Despite the regime’s attempt to project strength at home and abroad, it remains prone to more social unrest amid multiple domestic crises.

As an authoritarian regime determined to retain power, the Iranian government needs to sustain a social contract with its population. The regime must either grant freedom to the population and become less authoritarian or buy popular loyalty with material benefits. The regime’s refusal to make economic reforms makes the latter impossible.  The so-called political reformists have prioritized loyalty to the regime thus failing to garner popular support. Endemic corruption, economic mismanagement and international sanctions have devastated the economy and pauperized millions of Iranians. Contrary to other authoritarian systems like China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Singapore where a certain social contract exists between the citizenry and the state, Iran’s playbook for governance is largely predicated on repression.

Two years after the Aban protests, Iranians are angrier and more frustrated than ever with the regime. Street protests with citizens chanting slogans against the powerful figures of the regime such as Khamenei, Khomeini, and Soleimani — an offense ostensibly punishable by death – have taken place across the country. Although one cannot assert with certainty that these protests will spell the end of the regime, one thing is certain: as long as the sociopolitical grievances of the population are not addressed, the ruling class will face even greater protests and public anger will break new taboos.

Repression Continues to Fuel More Protests

The leaders of the Islamic Republic have been quick to resort to repression to quash anti-regime protests in a bid to protect the system from collapse. However, they are unwittingly laying the groundwork for more protests to take place across the country. Iranians’ grievances are multiple. Widespread poverty afflicts large segments of the population, even former followers of the regime who have now turned against the system. The ruling class and its children parade their conspicuous consumption on social media. The government crackdown on personal freedoms and strangling of the burgeoning women’s rights movement has turned people against the regime. Iran suffers from acute environmental problems—especially water shortage—attributable in large part to the Revolutionary Guards’ ill-advised and profit-centered dam-building projects. Add to these the grievances of ethnic and religious minorities and a catastrophic mismanagement of the COVID crisis.  In response to these challenges, the authorities have reacted to the grievances of the population using only one toolkit: repression.

The advent to power of a hardline cleric, Raisi, a judge believed to have played a key role in crimes against humanity by executing political prisoners in the 80s, presages a shift away from even limited appeal to the population through the idea of reform towards a full-blown repressive state.

Despite draconian crackdowns, protesters have not backed down. Citizens have continued to protest unabated at the slightest hint of discontent. Recently, water protests in July 2021 in one of Iran’s most oil-rich and once water-rich provinces, Khuzestan, lasted for days despite the regime’s attempt to contain them. This restive province, whose Arab minority has long sought recourse from systemic discrimination, has not received its fair share of its own oil proceeds or water resources. Prior to IRGC’s schemes to build dams and redirect the province’s water to other areas, Khuzestan was home to wetlands around the water rich Karun River. Water protests quickly spread to the province of Esfahan in November 2021. In a major shift, characteristic of many recent protests, religious and conservative segments of the population (the erstwhile bastions of support for the regime) have been chanting against the theocratic system.

The Aban Tribunal

As the regime’s reliance on repression has grown, human rights groups abroad have put in place what is now called the “Aban Tribunal” to hold the regime accountable for the killings of November 2019. Counseled by London-based, renowned human rights lawyers, the organizers aim to establish a UN Commission of Inquiry and get the EU to adopt human rights sanctions against the perpetrators.

However, it remains to be seen to what extent this tribunal can bring the perpetrators of the Aban protest killings to justice. According to Gissou Nia, Lawyer and Director of the Strategic Litigation Project, “these courts are modeled after the Russell Tribunal, set up to investigate the US military intervention in Vietnam. While the courts are not legally binding, they serve an important function in preserving and memorializing evidence, and allow victims and survivors the opportunity to share their stories and have their ‘day in court’. It is important to note that these tribunals are often constituted when the crimes are historical, and statute of limitations and the lack of retroactive application of human rights statutes hinder the ability to pursue legal options in the present. Despite its limitations, the Aban Tribunal can still serve as an advocacy tool. Given that the international community has seldom paid attention to the crimes committed by the regime in 2019 because of their focus on the nuclear standoff, this trial can call the public attention to these neglected human rights violations.

In conclusion, ordinary Iranians will be gearing up for another difficult year marked by water shortages, lack of freedom and economic hardships, all of which can unexpectedly pave the way for more protests, especially as the regime prioritizes repression in response. As for the regime itself, its increasingly frayed social contract with the populace exposes it to greater domestic threats.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Vahid Yücesoy is PhD candidate in political science/international relations at Université de Montréal, Canada. He’s a specialist of Iranian and Turkish politics and political economy. His analyses have been published in various news outlets including Radio-Canada, La Presse, Le Devoir, Al-Jazeera English, World Politics Review, L’Orient le Jour, Al-Monitor, and Radio-Zamaneh. He speaks French, English, Turkish, Persian, and intermediary Kurdish.

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