2009 vs now: How Iran’s new protests compare to the past

In this June 15, 2009 file photo, a protester allegedly injured by gunfire from pro-government militia is helped by another protester near a rally supporting leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in Tehran, Iran. Nearly nine years ago, massive crowds marched through the streets of Iran’s capital and other cities demanding change in the first major unrest to shake the rule of hard-line Muslim clerics. Now Iran’s Islamic Republic is seeing a new, equally startling wave of unrest. This time it appears to be fueled by anger over a still faltering economy, unemployment and corruption. (AP)
Updated 03 January 2018
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2009 vs now: How Iran’s new protests compare to the past

CAIRO: Nearly nine years ago, the upheaval was stunning. Massive crowds marched through the streets of Iran’s capital and other cities demanding change in the first major unrest to shake the rule of hard-line Muslim clerics over the country since they came to power in 1979.
It was sparked in the summer of 2009 when the reformist opposition raised accusations that the re-election victory of the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was rigged. The response was an earthquake. Pent-up resentment over political oppression brought millions nationwide out in protests over the next months, becoming known as the “Green Movement.”
Eventually, the response of Iran’s ruling establishment, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was brutal. The elite Revolutionary Guard and their volunteer force known as the Basij cracked down, opening fire on marchers and launching a wave of arrests. Dozens were killed, many more were jailed and tortured. The movement’s political leadership was put under house arrest.
Now Iran’s Islamic Republic is seeing a new, equally startling wave of unrest. This time it appears more amorphous and spontaneous, fueled by anger over a still-faltering economy, unemployment and corruption. Since last Thursday, protests have burst out in towns and cities around the country. At least 21 people have been killed. With no central movement behind the unrest, its supporters on social media have come to refer to it with any number of hashtags — or simply as “Tazahorat-e Sarasari” — Farsi for “Protests Everywhere.”
Here’s a look at the differences between 2009 and now that could give hints on what happens next.
WHO’S PROTESTING
In 2009, the demonstrations swelled to throngs of hundreds of thousands on some days and were focused in Iran’s main cities and provincial capitals, including Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz.
In contrast, the past days’ fury has burst out mainly in mid-size cities and towns. The protests have been smaller — it’s hard to get credible numbers, but they seem to each be in the hundreds or, at most, several thousand — but they have swiftly erupted in far more places than more than eight years ago.
The first protest, sparked by a rise in egg and poultry prices, broke out in Mashhad, a city in the east that is considered a stronghold for conservatives. But the unrest quickly spread across dozens of towns throughout the country. These sorts of mid-sized communities in the provinces have suffered heavily from the poor economy, with large proportions of young people unemployed and mired in despair over the future.
REJECTING THE SYSTEM
The protests may be rooted in anger over the economy and corruption, but protesters quickly started chanting slogans directly against Khamenei and denouncing the Islamic Republic itself — not just a call for reforms, but an open and outright rejection of the ruling system.
This is a dramatic shift from 2009. Protesters then had major demands — they wanted Ahmadinejad’s re-election overturned, reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi installed as president, greater social freedoms and an end to the security forces’ tight oppression. But their demands largely stayed in the framework of existing politics. Some voices called for Khamenei’s removal, but they were limited; the Green Movement’s leaders went out of their way to say they weren’t aiming to bring down the system, whether out of pragmatism or true faith in the potential for the “republic” part of “Islamic Republic.”
Now videos show some protesters chanting, “Death to the dictator” and calling for the end of the nearly 40-year-old Islamic Republic. That reflects how many now see families of prominent cleric-politicians and Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard as a corrupt economic elite, monopolizing business, hoarding wealth and leaving ordinary people with no place in the economy.
That presents a dangerous development for Iran’s rulers. The protests have revealed a hidden vein of sentiment — and not just among a “Westernized” urban elite — that has lost hope for clerical rule and openly wants to toss the whole thing out.
LEADERSHIP
The Green Movement of 2009 was firmly rooted in the reformist political movement, symbolized by former President Mohammad Khatami, the would-be president Mousavi and other prominent politicians who advocated greater margins of freedom and opening to the West. That gave the protests a base and organization able to mobilize massive numbers. It also gave protesters a defined set of demands — or to look at it from another angle, limited their ambitions.
So far no clear leadership has emerged for “Protests Everywhere.” Even opposition activists in Tehran are unsure who are involved. Still, the marches — with videos showing crowds of largely young men and women — have proven persistent and organized. Supporters on social media say that shows the breadth of support for a leaderless popular movement.
REFORMERS AND HARD-LINERS
In 2009, hard-liners were in firm control. Ahmadinejad’s policies and abrasive manner galvanized opposition — even part of the clerical establishment was against him — giving a wide base of support for protests.
Now the constituency that would be expected to join marches is more uncertain.
A relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, is president, brought into office by the votes of reformists. Many of those voters now feel his nuclear deal with the West has failed to bring economic benefits he promised.
If large numbers decide there is no hope in the system and turn to the streets, it could push the protests into the scale of 2009. But many may hesitate, calculating that an uprising will plunge Iran into the unknown and that trying for gains under Rouhani is safer. The ferocity of the 2009 crackdown traumatized the opposition. The state showed it was prepared to unleash lethal force, arrests and torture; many activists were relentlessly harassed and persecuted for years afterward. Mousavi and other Green Movement leaders have been under house arrest for years. That makes many wary of street protests again.
Rouhani has so far advocated a softer hand, saying Iranians have a right to protest. Reform politicians are calling for changes in economic policy to defuse the unrest. But ultimately, as in 2009, it will be Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard that decide — and if they sense the unrest is growing out of control, they could unleash a brutal and bloody response.
TWITTER THEN — TELEGRAM, WHATSAPP NOW
When Neda Agha Soltan was shot to death during one of the 2009 protests in Tehran, the 26-year-old woman became an icon of the uprising. Video of her wrenching last moments circulated widely on Twitter and other social media. It was a cycle that fed the protests: Young men and women were killed, then their images inspired others to join.
That was when the Social Media Age was just being born. Twitter had only been launched three years earlier. Facebook was only a bit older. At the time, fewer than 1 million Iranians had smart phones.
Now the reach has been exponentially magnified. Today, an estimated 48 million Iranians have smart phones, more than half the population. Social media apps have flourished — besides Instagram, the messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp are wildly popular. They are also encrypted, giving a degree of protection from state surveillance and providing a major organizing tool and a space for images and videos to circulate.
Still, 2009 in Iran and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings also showed the limits of social media; organization and imagery in the virtual realm don’t always translate into effectiveness on the ground.
INTERNATIONAL SCENE
President Donald Trump is an unpredictable new factor. Trump has dismissed what he portrayed as a weak response by then-President Barack Obama to the 2009 protests. Critics contend Obama should have thrown the US weight behind the uprising in an effort to bring down the Iranian government.
But Trump faces the same question Obama did: how much effect can the United States really have on the ground? Too close an association with the US and with Trump could discredit the protests in the eyes of some Iranians. So far, the rhetoric from the administration has mirrored Obama’s — both demanding Iran allow free expression and warning that “the world is watching.” The State Department has also raised the possibility of new sanctions on Iran over any crackdown on protesters.


UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

Updated 25 June 2018
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UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

RIYADH/ADEN: The Iran-aligned Houthi movement fired missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh late on Sunday, escalating tensions ahead of a visit by the UN envoy to Yemen this week to try to avert a military assault on the country’s main port city.
A Houthi spokesman has threatened more attacks in response to the offensive launched by a Saudi-led coalition on June 12 to seize control of Hodeidah port, long a key target, in an attempt to weaken the Houthis by cutting their main supply line.
The United Nations fears that an assault on the Red Sea port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths is due in the southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the legitimate government’s temporary capital, government officials said.
One official said Griffiths would be there only for a few hours for talks focused on averting an assault on the port.
“There is a proposal on the table,” the foreign minister of Hadi’s government, Khaled Al-Yamani, told reporters in Riyadh.
“We would accept a peace initiative on the condition that militias leave the western coast,” he said at a joint press conference to announce a $40 million project launched by Saudi Arabia for de-mining operations in Yemen.
The Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of the port to the United Nations, sources told Reuters. A US official said Washington was urging the Saudis and Emiratis to accept the deal.
The coalition said on Monday that eight members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group had been killed in battles in the mountainous Saada region in Yemen’s northwest, which is held by the Houthis along with the capital Sanaa.
Hezbollah officials could not be immediately reached for comment, but the group has previously denied Saudi accusations that it is helping Houthi rebels.
MISSILES OVER RIYADH
Saudi air defense forces intercepted two rockets over Riyadh late on Sunday, sending debris measuring up to several meters hurtling toward residential areas.
Pieces fell near the US mission in the Saudi capital and at a school in the diplomatic quarter. Debris sparked a fire at a construction site 10 km (six miles) further south and fell on the roof of a private residence, but Saudi officials said there were no casualties.
“Our rockets will reach places that the enemy will not expect,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said. “The longer the aggression and war continue, the greater our ballistic missile capabilities.”
Coalition spokesman Turki Al-Malki said the alliance’s advances on Hodeidah and other fronts were pushing the Houthis to try to project strength through such attacks.
Coalition-backed forces seized Hodeidah airport last week and have been consolidating their hold in the area as more Houthi fighters, many armed with Ak-47 assault rifles, were deployed in the city and around the port.
The United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in Iranian-made missiles, accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
The coalition has pledged a swift military operation to take over the airport and seaport without entering the city center, to minimize civilian casualties and maintain the flow of goods.