Teacher protests in Iran are a mounting challenge to the regime

EuroActiv Politico News

Hossein Abedini is deputy director of the Iranian resistance U.K. office and member of a Parliament in exile. He also serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

The Iranian Teachers’ Trade Organization led its latest in a long series of nationwide protests against the country’s clerical regime in late June.

On the surface, the protests were demanding salary increases, still below the poverty line, as well as better working conditions. But on a deeper level, these and other protests over the state of the economy represent a clear challenge to the entire ruling system, one the majority of Iranians hold responsible for their hardships. And the West should take notice. 

The discontent is evident from many of the slogans that have defined popular uprisings dating back to 2017 and are resurfacing today. In December of that year, an economic protest in the city of Mashhad sparked similar demonstrations in other areas, and by mid-January encompassed well over 100 cities and towns. 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 espoused by the country’s leading opposition movement, 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 which 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 citizens’ grievances by shifting the blame toward foreign “infiltrators” and American sanctions. 

Yet, the Iranian people have repeatedly responded to such propaganda by chanting, “The enemy is right here [in Tehran]; they are lying when they say it is America!” This leaves little doubt they regard Western sanctions as independent of their own economic outcomes. Meaning, they understand such measures are narrowly targeted at the clerical regime and its enablers, and that the regime has the power to largely prevent price increases and scarcity of essential goods — yet refuses to do so. 

This fact was further underscored last month, when Iran saw overnight price increases of as much as 400 percent for cooking oil and various other commodities. These spikes weren’t the result of any changes to the enforcement of U.S.-led sanctions. Instead, they were arbitrary cuts made 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 was appointed last June, it was widely assumed he would take office with the mandate to crack down more fiercely on dissent, and to deepen and expand the regime’s repression. This expectation has now been met by an ongoing rise in Iran’s already world-leading rate of executions, 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, resulting in thousands of arrests and the deaths of up to 1,500 peaceful protesters. But the importance of that crackdown is arguably matched by the importance of the people’s subsequent defiance, as only two months later, residents of at least a dozen provinces were back on the streets, protesting the regime’s attempt to cover up a missile strike that brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran. 

During those protests, activists burned images associated with the regime. Some also targeted images of Commander Qassem Soleimani, whose death from a U.S. drone strike had prompted the destruction of the airliner. 

By 2022, a pattern had emerged. In January of this year a massive statue of Soleimani was unveiled, only to be set on fire the same day by PMOI-affiliated “Resistance Units.” In subsequent months, similar activist collectives were responsible for interrupting state media broadcasts, government ministry websites and public address systems in various cities, and appealed for popular participation in a movement to dismantle the theocratic dictatorship, and establish a truly democratic system in its place. 

With their repetition of slogans like, “Down with oppressors, be it the shah or the supreme leader,” the teachers and retirees have so far staged 21 nationwide protests this year alone, and workers in the oil, gas, petrochemical and power industries have taken part in countless strikes, while demanding government accountability for maintaining harsh working conditions and inadequate pay. 

Since the start of the Iranian calendar year in March, there have been major uprisings in the Khuzestan, Isfahan, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari provinces. And more are expected in the months ahead — especially in light of explicit calls to action by the leadership of the Iranian Resistance. 

Iranians from all walks of life have less food on their tables each day, and the only way out of the present situation is through a change in regime — a regime that currently demonstrates ever-increasing boldness in plundering national wealth. On July 23, hundreds of lawmakers, current and former officials from across five continents will attend the Free Iran Summit 2022 to echo this message.

In this context, the teacher protests are one sign of a mounting challenge to that regime, and one that ought to 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 a missing actor in those discussions for far too long. And every lawmaker and policymaker who cares about the prospects of democracy in the Middle East should be working to change this.