Just a few days before the end of 2017, Iran once again filled international headlines when angry mobs took to the streets of the city of Mashhad over rising costs of living, increasing poverty and unemployment.
Soon the protests spread all around the country, and regardless of sect or ethnic group large segments of the Iranian population began chanting slogans such as “death to Khamenei” and “death to Rouhani” referring to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the symbol of the Iranian conservatives, and President Hassan Rouhani, who represents the reformers.
Both these men were rejected by the demonstrators in a sign of public frustration at all parties and of tiredness of the whole system of the Islamic Republic.
There were no chants against previous opposition leaders Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi who have been under house arrest for the past six years. Instead, the symbol of the pre-Islamic regime, the former Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, has been lauded in conservative Iranian cities such as Mashhad and Qom which house clerical seminaries and are hard line strongholds.
People chanted that they regretted the revolution that ousted the former Shah almost 40 years ago in 1979. There is nostalgia for the Iran of before the revolution when for many it was a leading nation in the region and was marked by the rise of the middle class and prestige in the international community.
These things are missing in today’s Iran. People from all around the country in scattered gatherings have been chanting “Prince Reza, please come back to Iran,” a reference to the son of Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who currently lives in the United States.
In response to the demonstrations, the regime held back for three or four days and then fired on peaceful demonstrators complaining of corruption, discrimination and poverty.
Several people have been killed and many others injured or arrested, but perhaps the regime is preparing itself for a stronger crackdown if it becomes necessary in the coming days.
The protests, which started spontaneously over public frustration at the high cost of living and inflation, have now turned into rejection of the system as a whole and have become more politicised.
The system is armed from head to foot, and its agents, enjoying benefits from being close to the circles of power, stand ready to crush all opponents as well as ordinary Iranians who seem ready to pay with their lives if necessary.
It may be that many Iranians have now reached the stage where they can no longer tolerate living in a dictatorship that holds its people hostage to negotiate with the international community over the lifting of sanctions or dealing with the EU and other powers.
Widespread corruption and a bankrupt economy is what the revolution has brought to most Iranians after four decades.
Most of the people who made the 1979 Revolution are now grandparents and are nostalgic for the period before it. This nostalgia seems to have inspired the new generations born after the revolution who have not seen anything other than war, oppression, and fat-cat mullahs riding around in Mercedes and BMW cars.
Meanwhile, the rest of the population can hardly afford to buy food for their children.
The gap between the rich and the poor in Iran has widened to the extent that even much of the country’s middle class is being plunged into poverty, while close associates of the system, whether reformists or conservatives, are living in luxury.
Even the re-election of Rouhani as president in spring last year has not translated into the progress people are looking for. Many Iranians have given up supporting any internal figure to represent them, and as a result one of the largest leaderless protests has now arisen since the revolution in 1979.
The demonstrators are shouting that they do not want their money to be spent on wars in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. They want to take back Iran from the mullahs.
The former Shah left Iran peacefully when he felt that he could no longer control the situation and died in self-imposed exile far from the land he adored and worked so hard for, despite allegations against him of human rights violations and trying to change a conservative society too fast into a Westernised one.
Rouhani has not had much to say to the demonstrators, except to threaten them with a crackdown if the turmoil continues. He is part of the country’s establishment, and the fate of the Islamic Republic matters to him, regardless of what he promised during his presidential campaign last year.
There has been no explanation from the president of why people have to suffer so much because of the regime’s Shia ideology and its interfering in the region, or why the wealth of the nation has been given to a small number of groups close to the system and why Iran has been humiliated before the world as a whole.
We should expect to hear much more from Iran in 2018.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper