LONDON, United Kingdom (Kurdistan 24) – After heavy government crackdown, the seemingly spontaneous nation-wide protests in Iran have been silenced, but a Nobel Peace Prize winner says the rage is ever present and will flame up at the next chance.
Late in December 2017, Iranians took to the streets to protest the sluggish economy. The 2015 deal with world powers removed sanctions on Iran in return for it ceasing its nuclear enrichment program, but the majority of citizens did not experience a betterment in their situation.
ECONOMY AND ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTS
Despite President Hassan Rouhani's promises to improve the economy, youth unemployment is at 40 percent, and inflation remains at 12 percent. A small group of Iranians seems to have reaped the benefits of the sanction-removals, leaving the rest to flounder.
Although the demonstrators at first complained about the rate of poverty and discrimination, chants soon changed in nature. "Death to Rouhani," and "death to the dictator," people shouted on the streets, referring to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Targeting the reformists and hardliners alike, the protests that started from the holy city of Mashhad spread to all other parts of Iran, including the Kurdish provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan.
Roughly 3,700 were arrested, over 20 were killed with at least three deaths in custody. The demonstrations slowed down in mid-January 2018.
But Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, says Iranians' anger and dissatisfaction is still present and powerful.
"People showed to their government and proved to the world that they are unhappy with the status-quo and want a referendum," Shirin Ebadi told Kurdistan 24.
"The fire is still smoldering under the ashes," she said in a phone interview.
She added that the Iranian government had not taken steps to improve the situation and has not believed just how angry people are.
REFORMISTS AND HARDLINERS
In May 2017, Iranians overwhelmingly voted for a group of candidates who branded themselves as "reformists." Although they are an accepted component of the current government, people hoped reformists would bring about tangible changes to their situation.
But only six months after casting their vote for moderate clergies, people openly challenged Iranian authorities in the largest display in almost a decade.
In the summer of 2009, when hardline-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected, millions took to the streets, denouncing the elections as rigged, and chanted in favor of “reformist” leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who have been in house arrest ever since.
However, the latest protests differed in scope and demands. This time, Iranians showed disillusionment with both groups and distrust in the unfulfilled claims of reform.
In response, reformists sided with the hardliners and labeled the demonstrations "plots of enemies and foreign countries."
"What people demanded in 2009 was in response to the lack of political freedom and objection to an unfair election, but this time, the demand was more about the economy," Ebadi explained.
In addition to the difference in the type of demands, the first line of protests this time was the working class. The 2009 protests were mostly supported by the middle-class. The capital, Tehran, which saw the largest rallies in 2009 was relatively quiet this time.
"The movement started from the powerless and marginalized, but is supported by the intellectuals," Ebadi said.
LACK OF LEADER AND ALTERNATIVE
Although Ms. Ebadi was one of the prominent Iranians who openly encouraged people to continue their protests, many critics argued that the demonstrations lacked a leader and therefore a strategy.
Others expressed concerns that removing the current ruling group without having a viable alternative could be a "dangerous game."
In response to the above points, the lawyer and human rights activist said, "People have the most power and can make the biggest change. They took to the streets and clarified their demands."
She said those who speak of lack of alternative are often those who find excuses to support the current government.
She pointed out that in the 1979 revolution, people were united and had a leader but the results were nevertheless catastrophic.
"In a free referendum, people will make their demands known," she said, reiterating her belief in the power of the people to determine their destiny.
Ethnic minorities in Iran remained hesitant participants of the latest protests, due to a history of repression.
Kurds and other ethnic groups were an active part of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy in an attempt to bring freedom and democracy to Iran. Shortly after seizing power, however, Khomeini attacked the provincial capital of Sanandaj, indiscriminately killed civilians and Peshmerga, at times even bombed hospitals. Many were executed after summary trials.
A minority in Iran but a majority among political prisoners, Kurds did not join the protests in 2009 but were involved in the 2017 demonstrations.
Turkmens, Arabs, Baluch, Kurds and other minorities say they experience multiple forms of oppression: cultural, political and economic.
They complain that the opposition fails to recognize their plight and is unwilling to address their demands, perceiving them as threats to territorial integrity.
Ethnic minorities add that they face distrust and disrespect from activists, intellectuals and average citizens alike.
As such, they cannot trust that whatever group replaces the current regime would treat them as citizens with equal rights.
To the above points, Ms. Ebadi responded that: "Just as fundamentalism in religion is rejected, fundamentalism in nationalism is also not accepted."
She went on to explain that by "fundamentalism," she means a kind of nationalism that "refuses to acknowledge cultural differences or value them. A diverse society is a more valuable society [than a homogenous one]," she said.
"Sadly, some of the Iranians have not learned to respect diversity, but that should not cause disappointment among ethnic groups," she noted.
"We consider all ethnic groups as part of Iran, and they should see themselves as part of us as well. Iran belongs to all of us. In a democratic government, these [complainst and mistrusts] won't exist. These are the by-products of the dictatorship."
"Iran is our lands. Iran belongs to Fars, Kurd, Arab. All of us share the land, and in a democratic Iran, all of us will receive our rights," she stated.
Ms. Ebadi said Iranians want a referendum. "The next step should be holding a referendum under the supervision of the United Nations," she affirmed.
"The first step would be to ask the YES/NO question. Do you support the Islamic Republic of Iran? If the majority votes against the government, the next step should be to ask people what kind of government they want. Then, according to the answer, we can move ahead," she said.
A former judge and current activist, Ms. Ebadi urged that all components unite and clarify their demands in order to achieve a democratic country where people will not experience discrimination.
Editing by Nadia Riva