President Rouhani Changes Course and Acknowledges Protesters’ Varied Reasons For Discontent
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani struck a more conciliatory tone in reacting for the second time to a wave of protests that have recently swept across dozens of Iranian cities.
“Some people think that the people are just asking for more money and a better economy. But do you know anyone who would be satisfied with a monthly salary while social media networks are completely cut off and the comings and goings from home are restricted and you don’t even have the right to speak? You cannot buy people’s freedom and lives with money. Why are some diverting from the truth? That is an insult to the people,” said Rouhani during a meeting with senior officials at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance on January 8, 2018.
“The people have demands that are economic, cultural, social and also security-related. Attention should be paid to all these demands,” he added. “If the young generation comprises the majority in the country, then we should take actions based on their wishes.”
The president also criticized the state-funded broadcasting service, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), for primarily providing conservative TV and radio programs as well as favoring conservative viewpoints in its news programs.
“My first and current governments have proudly allowed the free flow of information but some don’t like cyberspace,” said Rouhani. “They say people should only watch IRIB programs. However, we believe IRIB should reflect the voice of the people, not just one faction.”
“Young people understand what’s going and they want to be heard,” he said. “People are openly expressing themselves and we must listen to them and more importantly, act accordingly.”
At least 25 people have been killed since anti-government demonstrations broke out across Iran on December 28, 2017. The protests have been harshly repressed by the authorities and more than 3,700 demonstrators are being held without charge.
“More than 90 percent of the people arrested in the unrest were young people and teenagers under the age of 25 and virtually none of them have any arrest history,” said the Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Hossein Zolfaghari on January 1.
While acknowledging the people’s right to peaceful assembly three days after the protests broke out, Rouhani also described the demonstrators as a “small minority” and warned them of harsh consequences on January 1, 2018. His recent remarks struck a softer tone.
In early January, Rouhani dismissed the protests as “nothing but minor incidents, the likes of which our great nation has witnessed many times and moved on.” But on January 8 he re-affirmed the people’s right to peaceful protest, adding, “Criticism is the people’s right because the country belongs to them.”
“We should not dismiss anyone,” he continued. “Dismissing people in these circumstances would be dangerous. Criticism of the status quo is constructive.”
Rouhani also called on the protesters to avoid disrupting the country’s economic operations.
“To have a better life, we need tranquility in the country,” he said. “Unrest will disturb the peace and security needed for businessmen to invest and earn an acceptable profit.”
During his meeting at the ministry, Rouhani stated that “more than 100,000 jobs had been lost in the past week” as a result of the state’s cut-off of access to the global internet.
The recent unrest in Iran—during which the authorities disrupted Iranians’ access to the internet and blocked major social media networks used by the protesters—demonstrated that the Iranian government’s decade-long effort to control the internet in Iran is being realized.