Iranians protesting the country’s tanking currency on Monday were heard shouting “Death to Palestine” amid nationwide anger over the Islamic Republic’s increasingly troubled economy.
At a crossroads in central Tehran, police fired tear gas at dozens of youths shouting slogans and throwing stones, eyewitnesses said, while traders in the Iranian capital’s Grand Bazaar held a rare protest strike.
Monday’s protests in Tehran began at the capital’s sprawling Grand Bazaar, which has long been a center of conservatism in Iranian politics and where the ayatollahs’ 1979 Islamic Revolution first gathered pace. Protesters there forced storekeepers to close down their shops Monday.
Videos posted to social media showed protesters chanting: “Death to Palestine,” “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon” and “Leave Syria and think of us.” Chants of “We don’t want the ayatollahs” and “Death to the dictator” were also heard at some rallies.
The demonstrations indicate widespread anger at the regime for spending billions of dollars on regional proxy wars and supporting terrorist groups, instead of investing it on the the struggling economy at home.
In recent years, Iran has provided financial aid to Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Tehran has poured a reported $6 billion into propping up president Bashar Assad’s government.
The slogans heard at Monday’s rallies mark a shift in Iranian street protests, where “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” are commonly heard. The protests signaled widespread unease in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and restore sanctions on the country.
According to Hadashot TV news’s veteran Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari, Monday’s protests marked the first time that Iranians have chanted “Death to Palestine” during anti-regime protests.
In the last six months, Iran’s currency has lost almost 50 percent of its value, with the US dollar now buying around 85,000 rials on the open market.
Apart from the rial’s collapse, the Iranian private sector has long been starved of investment, its banking system is crippled by bad loans and record levels of unemployment mean a third of under-30-year-olds are out of work.
At the end of last year, similar economic protests roiled Iran and spread to some 75 cities and towns, becoming the largest demonstrations in the country since its 2009 disputed presidential election. The protests in late December and early January saw at least 25 people killed and nearly 5,000 arrested.
However, those protests largely struck Iran’s provinces as opposed to Tehran itself. Analysts believe hard-liners likely encouraged the first protest that took place in Mashhad to try to weaken President Hassan Rouhani, a vaunted moderate. The protests then spiraled out of control, with people openly criticizing both Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Rouhani’s government has struggled with the economic problems, including high unemployment. A government-set exchange rate of 42,000 rials to $1 has generated a vibrant black market. On Monday, state television quoted Iranian Central Bank chief Valiollah Seif as saying the government plans to create a parallel market next week to combat the black market.
Meanwhile, some hard-liners have called for new elections or for Rouhani’s civilian government to be replaced by a military-led one. The Fars news agency, believed to be close to Iran’s hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, made a point Monday to publish an article from the Sobh-e No daily newspaper describing the government as being ready to “bow down to foreign threats and sit at the negotiation table.”
Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran’s first vice president, was quoted Monday as saying, “We’re on the verge of an economic war by an economic terrorist,” referring to the US.
“Conditions will get worse in future,” Jahangiri said, according to the pro-reform Etemad daily newspaper. “Even our friends and neighbors like Russia, China and Europeans can’t help us today.”
Agencies contributed to this report.