A video uploaded on YouTube showed hundreds of demonstrators near the market:
“They spend billions of dollars to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, but now they say they have no money!,” one garment seller screamed as he was cheered on by others, witnesses reported. A team from Iran’s state television was nearly attacked when its reporter turned to the camera saying that the people behind him had been upset over a robbery.
The protests were sparked by security forces raids in downtown Tehran, a day after Ahmadinejad blamed small ring of 22 black market currency traders for upsetting the currency market, the Wall Street Journal reports:
Most trade unions that operate in the bazaar, including textile, home appliance and jeweler unions, said on Wednesday that they had called for a strike to show concern about the currency. The fluctuations have forced sellers and buyers to delay deals to adjust prices to the new rates.
Riot police were deployed to quash the protests which coincide with growing factional tensions within the ruling elite, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is reportedly in a ‘final showdown’ with a key rival and a recent spate of political detentions begins to expand into ruling circles.
“During the past months some Iranian leaders and clerics have warned against social unrest over the worsening economic malaise in the country,” the New York Times reports.
“The fall in the currency’s value has presented Iran with enormous economic risks, including the possibility of starting a severe bout of inflation, which is already high,” says the Times’ Thomas Erdbrink. “A rising sense of economic crisis in Iran could also pose new political challenges for the country’s leaders.”
It is too soon to speculate whether the protests will create fresh political space for opposition groups, but the pro-democracy Green movement has cautioned against externally-driven ‘regime change’. Many Iranian democrats were dismayed by the US State Department’s recent decision to recognize the Islamic-Marxist MEK cult which the
Green movement spurned after the regime tried to link them in an attempt to discredit the opposition.
Today’s protests follow a crackdown on civil society and rights activists that drew condemnation from the United Nations.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed concern about a nine-year prison sentence on Mohammad Ali Dadkhah (above), a leading human rights lawyer, for alleged “membership in an association seeking to overthrow the government and propaganda against the system.”
His sentence was accompanied by a 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching, one rights activist called part of a “disturbing trend apparently aimed at curbing freedom of expression, opinion and association.”
Despite today’s protests, some analysts believe sanctions are unlikely to damage Iran’s economy enough to prompt a collapse severe enough to disrupt its plans to build a nuclear weapon.
“What’s clear is that Iran’s nuclear redline will occur long before Iran’s economic cripple date – when the regime faces imminent economic collapse as a result of sanctions,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “That is the uncomfortable conclusion that the Obama administration the faces: Iranian nuclear physics is beating western economic pressure.”
Other observers believe some form of internally-driven regime change is a prerequisite for improved US-Iran relations and for any effort to halt Tehran’s nuclear aspirations.
“The United States will make genuine progress with Iran only when moderate leaders assume greater control of the state,” Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow Ray Takeyh argues. “An interim accord may provide time, but that time must be used to broaden the contours of Iran’s political system.”