Unrest Beneath Calm

Voices of ordinary Iranians, including minority Sunnis have been though suppressed, but Tehran may not have its easy goings unless jobs and corruption like issues are addressed 

By Mridu Kumari

After being killed by Iranian armed forces Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old singer instantly became a symbol of ant-government protests throughout the middle-east nation in 2009. Almost nine years after that ghastly incident, clock appeared taking a full circle again in Iran; noises of protesters who were upset with the country’s lackluster economy and nearly four decades of hard-line Islamic clerics rule, started rankling political elites of Tehran, Iran’s capital which is known for its complexity and where multiple factions are trying to pull the country in different directions.

For more than a week, Iran was in the fire of agitation led by youths seeking employment and action against widespread corruption in government departments. Even restive minority groups like Sunnis demonstrated against severe economic problems they face in the country. At least 25 Iranians were killed during that anti-government agitations and several people were arrested. President Hassan Rouhani’s government imposed censorship on the press and television channels; social media sites were closed down; protestors were silenced by iron fist hands, reminding the world that Iran would brook no leniency towards those who would try to challenge the existing relation between state and religion in the country. Experts say there is no guarantee that protests don’t erupt again in Iran as reasons of unhappiness continue to exist in the Middle-East nation.

But Iran’s ruling establishment has been in for more rude shocks from Sunni jihadist group, Ansar al-Furqan Ahwaz. The banned terrorist group which has ties with al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, recently attacked an oil pipeline in Iran’s Southern Khuzestan province. This attack was conducted to inflict economic damage on Iran. In the operation that followed the attack, three soldiers of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed while they managed to arrest 16 jihadists. It is should be noted that areas bordering Pakistan are hub of terrorist groups sponsored and supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

In every attack that terrorists have launched against Iran from areas bordering Pakistan, they have offered one common justification for their misdeeds. They said they perpetrated violence against Iran for its discrimination against Sunni Muslims there. In April last year, Jaish al-Adl (JaA) shot dead 10 Iranian border guards in an ambush in Mirjaveh county in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. The JaA, which claimed the responsibility for the killings, said the attack was carried out against Iranian security forces because of on-going discrimination against Sunni Muslims and the Baluch ethnic group. Iranian police in their statement issued then said held Pakistan responsibility of the terrorists’ attack on border guards. “The Pakistani government bears the ultimate responsibility of the attack,” Iranian police said. Nonetheless, this indicated the country’s vulnerability to terrorism. At the time when common Iranians take to streets to vent out their pent up feelings against the government’s economic policies, growing unemployment and corruption, such terrorist attacks only make things more acute.

It should not be forgotten that in Iran, while hardliners have proliferated in every division, sector and department of the government, leaving no window for liberal minded people to ventilate their anger, years of America and Western countries-led sanctions that it withstood left it with no sufficient fund for economic development. In 1979, the US froze Iran’s assets in America totaling $12 billion following the hostage crisis. Sanction regime continued over the years. Besides assets freeze, the US slapped a full trade embargo on Iran till 1981. Six years after a fresh embargo was imposed on Iranian goods and services “as a result of Iran’s support for international terrorism and its aggressive actions against non-belligerent shipping in the Persian Gulf,” the US Treasury said in its statement in 1987. There was no relief to the Middle-East nation from the Uncle Sam. In 1995, it banned its involvement with Iran on its petroleum production and two years later, it banned virtually all trade and investment activities with the country. In 2010, the US, the European Union and other countries around the world slapped more stringent sanctions on Iran on the issue of its controversial nuclear programme.

In 2011, the US added further sanctions under which restrictions were imposed on companies that provided Iran with equipment and expertise to run its oil and chemical industries. It prohibited groups that did business with banks or other financial institutions of Iran. The US sanctions also targeted groups in Iran, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops, the Basij Resistance Force, Law Enforcement Forces, besides several Iranian individuals. But America and its European allies were alone in putting Iran under the weight of sanctions’ regime; the UN also imposed sanctions against the country. From 2006 onwards, it passed series of resolutions against it. Material related to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear and ballistic missile programs were embargoed.

A long list of individuals and entities were also subjected to a travel ban and assets freeze. All this has a cascading effect on Iran’s economy. In spite of this, Iran has spent millions of its hard earned money on war in Syria, particularly against those who want ouster of the Bashar al-Assad regime from Damascus; it is engaged in war in Yemen and other countries of the region. Amid this, there is lurking fear of America imposing sanctions on the country again. US President Donald Trump has warned reviewing nuclear deal undertaken between Iran and six countries during his predecessor Barack Obama’s time. In 2015, nuclear deal was struck with Iran. Yet it has failed to bring significant economic gains for ordinary Iranians. This has led to people losing their faith in the government. The specter of unrest that caught Iran in its octopus grip in 2009 has resurfaced repeatedly in the nation. Even as calm has returned to the streets relatively quickly during the latest protests, but Iranians are still angry with their government and as such, no one is sure when unrest will suddenly erupt and then takes its toll on the Middle-East’s national interest.