Teacher protests in Iran are a growing challenge to the regime – POLITICO

Hossein Abedini is Deputy Director of the UK Office of Iranian Resistance and Member of Parliament in Exile. He also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Iran’s Teacher Trade Organization led the latest in a long series of nationwide protests against the country’s clerical regime in late June.

On the surface, the protests demanded wage increases, still below the poverty line, as well as better working conditions. But on a deeper level, these and other protests against the state of the economy pose a clear challenge to the entire ruling system, one that the majority of Iranians blame for their woes. And the West should take notice.

Discontent is evident in many of the slogans that have defined popular uprisings dating back to 2017 and resurfacing today. In December of that year, an economic protest in the city of Mashhad sparked similar protests in other regions, and by mid-January encompassed more than 100 towns and villages. As it spread, the uprising also took on an increasingly political tone, with participants calling for « death to the dictator » and endorsing regime change as embraced by the main opposition movement in country, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI).

The same slogans are recognizable features of at least eight subsequent uprisings, including the teachers’ union protests that coincided with both International Workers’ Day and Iran’s National Teachers’ Day in May. The protests have been met with predictable repression and familiar propaganda, seeking to downplay citizen grievances by blaming foreign “infiltrators” and US sanctions.

Yet the Iranian people have repeatedly responded to such propaganda by chanting, « The enemy is here [in Tehran]; they lie when they say it’s America! It leaves little doubt that they view Western sanctions as independent of their own economic performance. This means they understand that these measures narrowly target the clerical regime and its enablers, and that the regime has the power to largely prevent price hikes and the scarcity of essential goods – but refuses to do so.

This fact was further underscored last month, when Iran saw overnight price increases of up to 400% for cooking oil and various other commodities. These spikes were not the result of any changes in the application of US sanctions. Instead, they were arbitrary cuts to Iranian food subsidies as part of broader efforts by Ebrahim Raisi’s government to shore up the regime’s rapidly dwindling treasury at the expense of the civilian population.

After Raisi’s appointment last June, it was widely believed he would take office with a mandate to crack down more ferociously on dissent and deepen and expand the regime’s repression. This expectation has now been met by a continued increase in Iran’s execution rate, already the highest in the world, which began immediately after Raisi’s appointment.

Raisi had also played a major role in the regime’s crackdown on nationwide uprisings in November 2019 as head of the judiciary, leading to thousands of arrests and the deaths of up to 1,500 peaceful protesters. But the scale of this crackdown is matched only by the scale of the people’s subsequent defiance, for only two months later, residents of at least a dozen provinces were back on the streets, protesting against the regime’s attempt to cover up a missile strike that brought down a commercial plane near Tehran.

During these protests, activists burned images associated with the regime. Some also targeted images of Commander Qassem Soleimani, whose death following a US drone strike had caused the destruction of the airliner.

In 2022, a trend had emerged. In January this year, a massive statue of Soleimani was unveiled, to be set on fire the same day by the MEK-affiliated “Resistance Units”. Over the next few months, similar activist collectives shut down state media broadcasts, government ministry websites and public address systems in various cities, and called for popular participation in a movement to dismantle theocratic dictatorship and establish a truly democratic system in its place.

With their repeated slogans such as « Down with the oppressors, be it the shah or the supreme leader », teachers and pensioners have so far staged 21 nationwide protests this year alone, and workers in oil, gas, petrochemical and electricity industries have taken part in countless strikes, while holding the government to account for maintaining harsh working conditions and inadequate wages.

Since the beginning of the Iranian calendar year in March, major uprisings have taken place in the provinces of Khuzestan, Isfahan, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari. And more are expected in the coming months, especially in light of the explicit calls for action made by Iranian Resistance leaders.

Iranians from all walks of life have less food on their tables every day, and the only way out of the current situation is through regime change – one that is currently showing ever-increasing audacity in plundering the national wealth. On July 23, hundreds of current and former legislators, officials and officials from five continents will attend the Free Iran 2022 Summit to echo this message.

In this context, the teachers’ protests are a sign of a growing challenge to this regime, and a challenge that should be given its rightful place in discussions of Western policy and the potential future of the Iranian nation.

The Iranian people and their organized resistance movement have been an absent player in these discussions for too long. And every lawmaker and policymaker who cares about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East should work to change that.

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