Iranians are challenging the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic because corruption and inequality undermine its ideals, a human rights activist has claimed.
In an interview with World Watch Monitor, Mansour Borji, Iranian-born advocacy director of UK-based human rights charity Article 18, said the street protests that spread across the country earlier this month revealed not just economic frustration but also disillusionment with the way the 39-year-old regime is perceived to “use Islam for their own ideology”.
Protestors initially took to the streets over high prices and alleged corruption, but the demonstrations took on a rare political dimension as a growing number of people called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be removed.
Borji said the authorities believe “the spark of the unrest” came from “the holy city of Mashhad, a stronghold of Islam in Iran”, where protests began on 29 December.
“To me, the whole unrest sounded like people turning their back not only on this regime but on political Islam as a legitimising reason behind what the regime is doing,” Borji said.
Social media users uploaded footage of mosques and an Islamic seminary being torched.
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Some protestors also called for Iran to stop funding expensive military adventures abroad and address domestic poverty. Tehran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, has ties to Hamas in Gaza, has funded Shia militias in Iraq, is backing President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Islamists in the Syrian Civil War, and is accused of supporting Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran’s involvement in multiple sectarian conflicts across the region mean that the power balance in several nations could be upset if the regime were seriously threatened. Larger scale, better organised protests in 2009, before Iran became embroiled in Syria and Yemen, had worried the regime less, Borji said.
“To me, the whole unrest sounded like people turning their back not only on this regime but on political Islam as a legitimising reason behind what the regime is doing.”
“The Iranian government is more concerned about these protests than about those in 2009, because it showed their weakness in parts of the country where so far they felt secure,” he said.
Meanwhile levels of corruption have risen since 2012 as Iranian officials sought ways to circumvent successive rounds of Western sanctions on imports and exports, Borji said, giving financial controls to unaccountable and non-transparent bodies such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the judiciary.
“Over the past few years, several high-ranking Iranian officials have warned that corruption is the number-one threat for the country’s security and stability,” he said. “The most important pressure that is delegitimising this regime is corruption. A regime that came to help the poor and needy and improve their livelihood is now being seen as the cause of more misery and corruption.”
He suggested Iranians today have little faith in the regime being capable of reform. When they look at the regime, “they see just survival tactics”, he said.
However the regime is not to blame for all of Iran’s economic woes, he added. The 2015 nuclear deal agreed with the former US administration has not fulfilled Iranians’ hopes for greater prosperity, Borji added. Since it was signed, daily life for many has become harder, because although US President Donald Trump has not abandoned the 2015 deal, his equivocation over recertifying it every three months is scaring off investors, Borji said.
When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979, he cited equity and social justice as two of the revolution’s objectives. Khomeini won popular support criticising the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the US-backed Shah and his elites.
Borji perceives a subtle shift of allegiance away from the state-imposed Shia Islamism back towards the Persian nationalism that predated the revolution.
He said there had been “unprecedented” calls for the return of the monarchy, while increasing numbers of people are celebrating the birthday of King Cyrus the Great. Cyrus, founder of the first Persian Empire, is recorded in Old Testament helping the exiled Jews return to Jerusalem. He is respected in Iran because he is remembered as a king who ruled with benevolence and tolerance, in whose name was written the first charter of human rights in the ancient world, Borji added.
However, while many Christians in Iran hope for political “change for the better”, Borji foresees little hope of imminent improvement in their circumstances.
“The normal monitoring and arrests of Christians in the house-churches just continue,” he said. “In just this next couple of weeks we have appeal courts deciding on the fate of a number of Christians who in July were sentenced to ten years and more,” he said.
Iran is 10th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it most difficult to live as a Christian.