Protests, 2018 budget and public discourse in Iran

A month after protests erupted in Iran, there are signs that those who demonstrated in the streets may have had some success.

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    Iran’s parliament rejected the initial 2018 budget proposal that would have increased the price of petrol by 50 percent [Anadolu]
    Iran’s parliament rejected the initial 2018 budget proposal that would have increased the price of petrol by 50 percent [Anadolu]

    Tehran - Nearly a month after anti-government demonstrations in Iran made international headlines, there are signs that activists may have had some success.

    This week, Iran's parliament rejected the initial 2018 budget proposal that would have increased the price of petrol by 50 percent.

    A joint commission of parliament has also said there will be no increase in the prices of water, electricity and gas in the current fiscal year.

    The decision, made on Sunday, gave legislators 72 hours to submit a revised budget, which may still include hikes. But for now, prices will remain the same.

    While the government has not explicitly said the decision was due to the December protests, it seems legislators are taking the public mood regarding Iran's difficult economic conditions more seriously.

    Iranians Al Jazeera spoke to said that, while prices never go down in their country and there is still a long way to go to improve living conditions for most people, at least now Iranian leaders are talking about the economy.

    "My recommendation [to the president] is to work harder to resolve peoples problems [and address] their legitimate demands," said Mohammad Motamedinejad, a student who participated in protests last month, but stayed home when they turned violent.

    "The government should hear the [voice of the people]," he said.

    "The officials were elected by these people and their problems should be solved as soon as possible."

    One member of parliament told Al Jazeera that external factors the government cannot control are hurting the country's economy.

    "We know that there are high prices and unemployment but many of the [problems] are artificial," said Hassan Norozi, an MP representing Tehran Province.

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    By not honouring the 2015 nuclear deal, which was signed by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, Norozi said the administration of US President Donald Trump is keeping the country from improving its own economy and putting economic pressure directly on Iranian people.

    Trump announced earlier this month that he would continue sanctions relief for Iran for the "last time" so that the deal could be renegotiated.

    "We signed the nuclear deal, but they are trying to put pressure and break it," Norozi said.

    He added: "They are trying to persuade European countries to go along with them. They have blocked our money in their countries. They don't give our [assets] and money back to us. They don't let us use [banking] facilities because they are our enemies and the people of Iran know this enemy. The people of Iran won't agree to sacrifice their dignity for temporary welfare." 

    Iranian leaders have blamed foreign media reports for exaggerating the extent of public discontent.

    "It is natural if you ask any Iranian person if the Islamic establishment is better or monarchy, they would say the Islamic system," Norozi said, comparing the current form of government to the time of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Raza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

    "If you ask Iranians if this establishment works better or the previous regime, they would say this," he said. "If you ask any Iranian if independence is better than slavery, they would say independence."

    'More open dialogue needed'

    The majority of Iranians Al Jazeera spoke to are in favour of maintaining the countries current system of government, but it is rare for people to speak in public against the Islamic establishment and the government-appointed Muslim leaders and scholars running the country.

    Open criticism does happen in the privacy of Iranian living rooms. But even people who are disenchanted with the current type of government acknowledge that changing it would come with the kind of violent upheaval most Iranians would not tolerate. 

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    Most people expressed a desire to, at the very least, have a more open dialogue about how to run the country.

    "Mostly Islamic ideals have been established but not everything in society has been completed," said Reyhaneh Atashi, a university student living in Tehran.

    "Compared to the early years after the revolution, things have gotten better. I'm not saying that people's situations are getting better, but we're happy. There is not as much pressure on [Iranian] people like other countries think. But every society has its own problems."

    Atashi said having an Islamic government has made Iran stronger and a safer. She compared Iran to other countries in the region that have experienced more conflict, like Iraq and Syria. But she said there was more work to be done to improve things like equality between men and women.

    "The best thing that could happen in a society is the equality between a man and woman," she said. "The more we work for this, the better a society we will have. Definitely, we will have more peace. Definitely, there will be less [international] pressure on Iran."

    Social media

    Much of the free debate that happens in Iran happens online.

    Social media played a major role in December demonstrations. Largely leaderless rallies were coordinated by various groups and individuals through social media apps.

    It's also part of the reason they spread so quickly across the country.

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    "This was probably the first scenario, the first case, the first instance of such a thing in Iran, when official media outlets actually lost the leadership [of the story] to social media platforms," said Mostafa Khosh Cheshm, a political analyst based in Tehran.

    "They played a much more major role than official media outlets like TV and news agencies, websites. Maybe as much as 80 percent of events were covered by social media and they … played a major role in leading and covering events and presenting analysis of what was going on in Iran," Khosh Cheshm said.

    He added that during the last presidential elections social media was a major focus of political campaigns. But the impact of apps like Telegram, Twitter and Facebook on fueling recent demonstrations was much bigger. He said, though, that such platforms were also a source of misinformation.

    "Everything is different when it comes to Iran because everything is politically driven," he said.

    Protests and the media

    The December demonstrations were the worst seen since 2009. Back then millions took to the streets to protest the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But government officials told Al Jazeera the latest unrest was exaggerated by what they described as hyperbolic foreign media coverage that, officials said, suggested rallies and riots might topple the establishment.

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    "[Riots] were broadcast by various media outlets in sizes that were not real," Khosh Cheshm said.

    "The sizes that were shown and projected by various media outlets were beyond a doubt something fake," he added.

    "Most scenes were shot from close range so you couldn't see the numbers. The numbers were no more than a couple of hundred rioters in [a few] cities, no more. But they were shown by the foreign media in a way that many people believed there is a revolution in Iran and millions are out." 

    It is true that anti-government demonstrations numbered in the thousands, much smaller than crowds in 2009. And while there was unrest during recent demonstrations, resulting in deaths, injuries and widespread arrests, life in most of the country carried on largely undisturbed.

    However, coverage by local news channels and Iranian state-run media pushed its own pro-government agenda.

    For the first several days of the anti-government demonstrations, local channels ignored them altogether. When they did finally begin to cover demonstrations, the focus was primarily on wall-to-wall coverage of pro-government counterdemonstrations and the government narrative that anti-government rallies were small and being fuelled by foreign enemies in an effort to destabilise the country.

    In contrast, news of anti-government rallies was restricted to cyberspace.

    The most popular app in Iran, Telegram, was blocked to stop the flow of information. Since then, the service has been restored but between roadblocking activists in cyberspace and a show of pro-government strength in the real world, anti-government rallies quickly fizzled out.

    But even at their height, they were mostly ignored by Iranian media. Meanwhile, many journalists working for foreign news outlets admitted that showing up to cover anti-government demonstrations was a sure way of getting arrested and having press accreditation revoked. As a result, the only videos that emerged from opposition rallies were user-generated content shared online.

    Distrust of their leaders

    Earlier this month, reports emerged of two people who took their own lives while in police custody. One in Evin prison in Tehran and another in Arak prison in the provincial capital of Iran's Central Province.

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    The government said that both were drug addicts arrested on criminal charges unrelated to the protests. Their families have denied the allegations and many opposition voices simply don't believe their version of the story.

    Even if the official version of events are to be believed, Iranians often blame a lack of transparency by Iran's leaders as contributing to the distrust they may feel, especially when it comes to cases as serious as the deaths of people in police custody.

    The government's attempt to dispel rumours was hampered by snow this week.

    Reformist and opposition parliamentarians had planned to visit people being held at Evin prison and to assess living conditions. The trip, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed due to snow storms that closed roads in the capital as well as major highways and airports across the country. No new date had been set at the time of publication. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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