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Protests near Tehran and in southwest

By Bill Samii
Vol. 3, No. 2,
January 10, 2000

On 3 and 4 January, residents of Islamshahr, a suburb southwest of Tehran, staged demonstrations that turned violent. The demonstrators blocked the Tehran-Saveh highway, according to IRNA, then "thugs and hooligans" damaged a local health center and some bus kiosks. A few days later, a mob in the southwestern city of Ramhormoz attacked a police station and government offices, the 6 January "Kayhan" reported.

Most of the residents of Islamshahr are poor migrants from rural areas, while those who live near Ramhormoz mainly work in the oil sector. They are not university students or multilingual intellectuals. Their protests have nothing to do with press freedom, elections, or relations with the U.S. Their protests focus on basic human needs, such as clean water and jobs. And for all these reasons, they draw relatively little attention in the rest of Iran and the West.

The Ramhormoz incident started as a protest about a redistricting plan. The unrest escalated over local concern about the parliament's plan to close a local oil facility and possible job losses. Reports about the Islamshahr incident also state that the protest was about a redistricting plan. But Islamshahr Governor Buyk Musavi told IRNA that central authorities consistently ignore locals' demands for improved public services, such as telephones and fuel supplies. This is not the first time violent protests occurred in Islamshahr over social services.

In April 1995, what started as a demonstration for better water supplies turned violent when people voiced their anger about economic hardships. Shops and offices were closed and demonstrators set fire to public buildings, government vehicles, and a gas station. Security forces killed and wounded demonstrators. In June 1992, there were protests when demolition teams tore down 220 illegally-built houses and shops as part of a clamp-down on unlawful buildings.

Lack of social services is not the only factor contributing to Islamshahr's tensions and its citizens' disaffection. Just as in the case of Ramhormoz, unemployment and job concerns greatly affect local attitudes. In July 1995, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp suppressed a three- day strike at the Khavar auto plant in Islamabad when workers protested for wage increases. A 20-ish fellow explained the current situation in the 16 July 1999 issue of "The New York Times." "We're all jobless. We have nothing to do. We try to do a little bit of business here and there and they arrest us as hooligans. That's why there are so many drug addicts here. It's the despair." What jobs are available generally go to Afghan refugees, who work longer hours for less money.

Islamshahr Governor Musavi told "The New York Times" that his town does not have an unemployment problem, and he added that the locals are very satisfied. This may be because he is unwilling to express criticism in front of foreigners, because in April 1999 he told a meeting of the Provincial City Administrative Council that the improvement of public services and linking Islamshahr with Tehran were outstanding problems.

An Islamshahr veteran of the Iran-Iraq War told "The New York Times": "I fought 40 months in the war against Iraq. When I came back the regime abandoned me. ...The youth are becoming drug addicts. We have no freedom, no jobs, nowhere to go and have fun. So we are all addicts. We are all addicts."

The incidents in Ramhormoz and Islamshahr may not attract much media interest. For most of the Western media, unemployment and poor social services are not very sexy. In Iran's heavily politicized climate, where most newspapers serve as factional mouthpieces, unemployment is being emphasized by the hardliners as a failure of President Mohammad Khatami's administration, and local problems are emphasized as a failure of the municipal councils and the Khatami-controlled Interior Ministry. In December, in fact, the Interior Ministry banned demonstrations by unemployed people in several cities, IRNA reported. For these very reasons reformists probably will ignore the issue, too.

For the average Iranian, however, unemployment, a low standard of living, and a weak economy are extremely relevant. And these are further indicators of the revolution's failure to fulfill its promises. (Bill Samii)