Interviews Conducted By Susanne Koelbl
Poverty, hardship and a sense of hopelessness are driving protesters into the streets in Iran, where they have been met with brutality by the Revolutionary Guard. Witnesses describe the dramatic events unfolding in the country.
Thousands have been protesting against the government and revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei in dozens of Iranian cities for more than a week now. The security forces have responded with lethal force, with human rights organization Amnesty International reporting more than a hundred deaths. The announcement made on the night of Nov. 15 that gasoline would be rationed and prices would increase dramatically — in some cases tripling — triggered the protests. Under sanctions imposed by the United States, Iran is only able to export small amounts of oil and goods, which has created a financial and economic crisis in the country. One of the aims of the American sanctions is to provoke protests. Officials in Washington hope a counterrevolution can bring down the regime. DER SPIEGEL spoke with Iranians who have witnessed the protests. To protect the interviewees, their names have not been used in this article, although their identities are known to the journalist.
Teacher, 37, from Tehran: “The news that gasoline prices would now double, from 1,500 toman to 3,000 toman (around 60 euro cents) per liter hit like a bang. At first, there was a silent protest in front of the university building. In addition to being a high school teacher, I am also completing a doctorate in architecture. I happened to be there when security forces in civilian clothes surrounded and removed some of the demonstrators. I wanted to get home fast, but the Revolutionary Guards stopped me. They called me a “traitor” and a “slut” and said I wasn’t a real Muslim. They arrested me too. The police station was totally overcrowded. They insulted and intimidated me. I was allowed to leave after a few hours.
I rushed home. My brother wasn’t there. No one had heard from him for 24 hours. A few days ago on Instagram, he wrote, “I have an important question for our leaders: You are so proud of the many missiles you have built to fight Israel. Are you also saving on gas there?” My brother is 27 years old and studying law.
Our internet connected was dead. The phones didn’t work. We checked the police stations. It turned out the Revolutionary Guards had arrested him. We kept negotiating until he finally got released. He was totally exhausted. They had terrorized and humiliated him. He was ashamed to say what really happened to him in jail. We now know that many young demonstrators were killed. Just like that, shot on the street.”
Islamic theology student, 56, from Shiraz: “When I came back from Tehran to my hometown of Shiraz this week, the streets in the north were full of people. We drove through the Maliabad district, where there are two gas stations. They were on fire. The driver said people were protesting over gas prices. He said they had set the gas stations on fire.
I am very religious and began pursuing a degree in Islamic theology at a later stage in my life. I trust the wisdom of our spiritual leader Khamenei. Closeness to God fulfills me. The protesters are enemies of our republic. They are being manipulated by our opponents, the Zionists. They support U.S. President Donald Trump’s imperialist ideas. The Americans want to destroy Islam.
I don’t really think there’s a shortage of gasoline in Iran. It’s all propaganda. President Hassan Rohani wants to stir up unrest in the Islamic Republic to please the Americans. He’s a puppet of imperialism. He must have lost his faith.
I live in Farhang Shahr, a middle-class area. The enemies of the state also gathered there. The security forces pushed the demonstrators back. They told the protesters to go home. Then shots were fired. It must have been agents of Israel and America who sought to further incite demonstrators against the government.
We’re being bombarded from the outside with false information. That’s why it’s good for the government to turn off the internet. Then the U.S. and Israel won’t be able to continue wrongly and negatively influencing people here.”
Web designer, 32, from Shiraz: “In the beginning, we, the protesters, walked silently down the street. The crowd kept growing. Then, some started shouting slogans, like: “Not Lebanon, not Gaza, I will only sacrifice myself for my fatherland Iran!” The idea was that Iran should not interfere with the conflicts of Arab countries. Another slogan was: “Our enemy isn’t America, our enemy is here!” Shots were fired. They were trying to scare us. They also used tear gas. Civilian police, who had only moments ago been walking with the crowd as if they belonged to the demonstrators, suddenly began arresting people. Everyone panicked and scattered.
We just wanted someone to listen to our problems — they mayor of Shiraz, for example, or an imam. But no one came. The reality is that other prices will go up along with gasoline prices — bread, eggs, meat, rent. A lot of people are losing their jobs right now.
We’re four people in my family. We all live in the same apartment. My dad works as a painter, my mother is a teacher, I’m a web designer and my brother is employed by the city. But the high inflation means we still don’t have enough money to buy things like fresh fruit every day. We never go on vacation. We seldom invite friends over anymore. We can only afford meat once a week. The recent price increase just went too far. The situation gets even worse with each new uprising. I would like to start a family, but I can’t afford it. Nobody gives us any help. Has the world forgotten us?”
City tour guide, 30, from Shiraz: “Our office is located directly on the big street where the protests took place. Many tourists from Europe, Sweden, Germany and England who had signed up for tours have since canceled their trips because of the unrest. For us, this means we won’t make any money yet again.
My cousin Rubina called. She was upset and crying and said she had gotten caught up in a demonstration in front of the university in Maliabad. She saw a fellow student get shot in the head. He fell to the ground and everyone screamed. Rubina thinks he died before the ambulance arrived to take him away. The Revolutionary Guards had simply mingled among the protesters. That’s why we no longer know which of the demonstrators belong to us and which belong to them.
On Tuesday, my cousin and I arranged to meet in the city center, at the intersection near the Saadi cinema. Protesters had just set banks there on fire. They wanted to send a message against inflation. There were police and intelligence service people everywhere. It was chaotic. We stayed in the background because we feared they would shoot again.
They’re blocking the internet so that none of this gets out. They’re cutting us off. Blood is being shed again in vain. We need this connection to the outside world. Call us! Come to our country! Don’t forget us.”
Architect, 28, from Bushehr: “The price increases have really upset people. The protesters have been normal, mostly poorer people. They made no secret of how fed up they are with the government. They want a regime change.
There were police and members of the Revolutionary Guard everywhere. They aimed hot water at the demonstrators and used tear gas. I saw it myself. It was eerie to observe how they neither allowed the protesters to move forward nor backward. This country has no plan for the future. The economic situation is no longer bearable. It is entirely unclear what will happen next. Perhaps the Iranians will soon be at each other’s throats?
My wife’s trying to get a student visa for Canada right now. I just want to leave this country.”
Businessman, 37, from Tehran: “We’re a family business that sells technical equipment. Things were going quite well for us, but everything has been back to zero since the sanctions went into full force again. We are living off our savings. Costs are constantly increasing as incomes decline. The economic pressure on the people has now led to this backlash.
It was the poorer people from the south who took to the streets in Tehran. They set banks on fire as a statement against inflation. In the nearby town of Karaj, people deliberately created traffic jams on the highway. The anger is unrestrained. But the Revolutionary Guard showed up everywhere at once. They were very harsh toward the demonstrators.
Mistrust toward President Hassan Rohani is growing in Iran. The government is chaotic. The people are suffering extremely from the fact that few countries are willing to work with Iran. Things can’t continue like this. We now have the feeling that we have been left completely alone here. No one in the outside world will know if they are persecuting or killing us.”
Art teacher, 43, Shiraz: “I haven’t allowed my son to go to school for a week now. We’ve barely left our home since the unrest began. The atmosphere outside is tense and things are only slowly quieting down. Banks and other institutions in Tehran have been set on fire and destroyed. What’s left is a feeling of serious insecurity. Our trust in this government has been exhausted. There’s fraud and corruption everywhere. Things can’t go on like this. I can’t see anything positive here any longer. My husband and I both make money, but it’s not enough to make ends meet. We’re so tired of this fight. I wish I could travel back through time to the days before the revolution. Everything needs to change. I would love to live in another country.”