People protest in Tehran, Iran December 30, 2017 in in this picture obtained from social media. REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1F4C4949E0

February 21, 2018

What the Gonabadi Dervish protests tell us about Iran's protest scene

A Sufi Muslim minority group’s violent protest in Tehran may result in the reignition of protests in Iran, although it has not yet done so. The addition of socially marginalized religious minorities to Iran’s new protest scene will further increase pressure on government officials to address the political and economic grievances raised during the late December-early January protests. The resumption of widespread anti-regime protests could result if the regime continues to suppress peaceful assemblies, deny licenses for peaceful protests, and fail to address protester demands. Any renewed protests are likely to be more compositionally diverse, posing a more complex security challenge to regime security services that clearly struggled in several small cities during the late December protests.

Gonabadi Dervishes, an oft-targeted religious minority group with nearly five million adherents in Iran, gathered in northern Tehran on February 19 to protest the unjustified imprisonment of Nematollah Riahi. Security officials detained Riahi, a fellow adherent, the day before for unknown reasons. Riahi, who is in his seventies and has a heart condition, remains imprisoned while security officials refuse to disclose the reason for his detention.

The protesters’ peaceful gathering (which was nevertheless in violation of Iranian law as they did not have permits), consisted of a sit-in in front a police station. It quickly turned violent as security forces forced the peaceful gathering to disperse without addressing the protesters’ concerns about Riahi. The deployment of security forces, including Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) Special Forces anti-riot teams, to remove protesters resulted in intense street fighting. On at least two documented occasions, protesters used vehicles to run over security forces leading to the deaths of five officials and injuring at least 30. Regime officials blamed the Gonabadi Dervishes for the deadly attacks while the order denied involvement. Security forces arrested more than 360 protesters following the events on February 19 and the protests have effectively ended 

The recent widespread anti-regime protests in Iran died down in early January, but the complaints and sentiments voiced during those protests have actually grown;

  • Defrauded depositors continue to protest the loss of their life savings to unregulated financial and credit institutions
  • Public and private employees continue to strike and demand their months of backlogged pay
  • Women continue to protest against the compulsory hijab
  • The Interior Ministry continues to deny permits for peaceful protests, including a request from some of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s closest political associates

The regime’s reluctance, and oftentimes refusal, to address its citizens’ political and economic grievances will exacerbate people’s dissatisfaction with current policies. As protester grievances continue to go unaddressed, regime officials will need to come to terms with the reality that any future anti-regime protests -- regardless of the grievance, organizer, or geographic location -- will have a greater potential to transform into a more expansive and demographically encompassing movement than the protests in late December-early January.

Although the Gonabadi Dervish incident has died down, it should serve as a reminder to all, however, that the Iranian regime has likely entered a new phase of its existence in which protests, even violent ones, may become the norm.