Iranian voters, fed up with politics as usual, have demanded the ouster of both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. Amr Alfiky/Reuters
More than 3,700 people were arrested and 23 were killed in sometimes violent nationwide marches that started on Dec. 28, 2017, in response to an austerity budget proposed by President Hasan Rouhani.
At first, the protests were a display of anger by working-class Iranians, in the city of Mashhad, who complained of poverty and inequality. But the unrest soon spread to more than 80 cities. And as thousands of disenchanted citizens widened the agenda to include corruption, human rights, foreign policy and women’s empowerment, police began to crack down.
By Jan. 4, riot police using tear gas, batons and bullets seemed to have quelled the protests. Then, on Jan. 14, two detained activists, Saro Ghahremani and Ali Poladi, died in prison, reportedly from torture.
Now, family members have begun gathering by the thousands outside Iranian jails. As an Iranian-born scholar, I see this vigil as a warning to the government: Violence against dissidents will not go unnoticed. It’s a sign that unrest in Iran is far from over.
Though Iran’s Constitution enshrines the right to peaceful protest, dissent has historically been met with harsh reprisal.
The recent detainee deaths have again raised fears that more activists will suffer a similar fate – concerns heightened by the hard-line rhetoric of Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Two weeks later, after the protests had ended, the spokesman for the judicial system – which falls under Khamenei’s jurisdiction – denied any government responsibility for protester deaths. He said that the bullets used to kill marchers aren’t the type used by Iranian police.
Such statements have earned popular sympathy for the thousands of people now keeping daily watch at Iran’s jails. Many Iranians were outraged when the same government spokesman, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, claimed that the two activists who died in jail "were drug addicts” who had “committed suicide.”
The victims’ families, relatives, and even celebrities familiar with the case have firmly denied this assertion.
Though President Rouhani has on several occasions defended Iranians’ right to protest, he seems unwilling to challenge the supreme leader on the brutality that lead to 25 protester deaths.
His silence has infuriated Iranians. A few days into the protests, demonstrators began accusing the self-declared reformist president of being no different than supreme leader, chanting, “Reformists, hardliners, your time is up.”
To understand Iranian voters’ frustration, it is key to understand just how powerful the Ayatollah Khamenei is in Iran.
Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution created the Islamic Republic of Iran, replacing Iran’s 2,500-year-old monarchy with a clerical regime, the supreme leader has been both the head of state and the highest ranking religious authority in Iran.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution established the supreme leader as the country’s ultimate ruler. Now many citizens say the time for clerical rule is over. Wikimedia
The Constitution grants the supreme leader’s office almost unlimited power. Today, Khamenei – like his well-known predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, whose reign ended when he died in 1989 – wields enormous control over Iran’s military, judiciary, treasury, media, foreign policy, presidential cabinet and legislative process.
The executive branch, in contrast, is rather weak. The president is limited to enforcing or changing the Constitution, meaning he can appoint ministers and ambassadors, for example – but he cannot, say, repeal laws that discriminate against women and ethnic minorities.
As a result, Rouhani, like other reform-minded presidents before him, have struggled to keep such campaign promises as modernizing Iran’s economy and improving human rights.
Khamenei’s power is also financial. A major portion of Iran’s national budget goes to the office of the supreme leader and its affiliated institutions. This funding is not subject to government oversight, and no one but Khamenei himself knows how much money he receives.