Sex, drugs and poverty: A look at Iran on the eve of the protests

In exclusive interview, recent visitor to Iran says people are demanding freedom and better living conditions, but they fear a crackdown and government informants.

Opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a protest outside the Iranian embassy in west London, Britain, January 2, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON)
Opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a protest outside the Iranian embassy in west London, Britain, January 2, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON)
“The people want freedom. They are hungry for it. This is the most difficult situation in Iran that is going on now.”
Majd Helobi, a Kurdish journalist, returned from Iran last month on the eve of the protests. During his travels, he met with dozens of people, including students and businessmen. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, he spoke about conditions inside the regime.
Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)
“Hungry” is a word Helobi used again and again to describe Iranians today. Hungry because people are suffering from poverty, but also because the people are hungry for change. “People in Iran are hungry. It’s not just about changing the government, it’s about doing anything they [need] to get change.”
In December, he spent seven days traveling around Tehran and other areas in Iran. “I asked the people what they thought,” he recalled. Overall, he felt, “They were mad at the government and hungry. They see stories of people who died in Yemen and Syria and people say, ‘[The] government is sending our kids and putting their hands in places we don’t have business being there.’”
This is in reference to Iran’s involvement in Syria and its support for Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Yemen and Iran. Iran has recruited foreigners, such as from Afghanistan and Pakistan, to fight, but it has also recruited many Iranians. It doesn’t release the casualty figures, but Helobi said that many people expressed frustration with Iran’s policy of involvement in foreign wars. “Why are there so many martyrs?” people asked. They claim the government brainwashed these young men to go fight abroad.
Since December 28, Iran has been rocked by protests in cities and towns across the country. From the Kurdish regions in the west to the far-east Mashhad, from Rasht near the Caspian Sea to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, protesters have taken to the streets to shout slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and to express their anger about the national poverty while the government wastes money in wars abroad.
In the last few days, more than a dozen protesters have been killed and police stations, banks and other buildings have become targets of wrath.
“The economy is messed up,” recalled Helobi. “If a worker works all day hard he will earn only $15. The money is crap.” He said that for foreigners, money goes very far because things are cheap. A hotel room in a nice hotel cost less than $50.
As a result, the locals curse the ayatollah.
“The Sunni community in Iran is very, very mad at the Shi’ite government. The government ignores them 100%. I was in some places like Pakdasht, near Tehran, which is a Sunni area, and heard this,” he said.
“I met businesspeople and students to understand the situation,” said Helobi. “They said, ‘The situation is very bad.’ They said, ‘Look across the border in Iraq, look at Europe, we don’t have freedom here, we don’t have Facebook.’”
To combat the government-imposed censorship, which is thought to restrict up to 25% of the sites on the Internet, people use VPNs (virtual private network) to access popular sites and apps. But using a VPN is illegal, he said. “If you get caught you get in trouble.”
Because of informants, the public is afraid to speak to outsiders and constantly concerned about intelligence agents. “I am speaking with people even today that I met and they are afraid. They are afraid of the government catching them, spying on them on Instagram and Facebook. And they are afraid to speak anywhere.”
Helobi compared the Iranian regime to Syria’s Bashar Assad government. “Similar to Assad... but Rouhani is smarter than Assad. He goes on social media. He shows the people that those people who are protesting are bad. In Syria they didn’t do that. In Syria the satellite channels hid the protests.”
Helobi speculated that the Iranian regime may be considering sending agent provocateurs among the protesters, to encourage the protests to be more violent and to create an excuse for a crackdown. This would be modeled on Assad’s decision to release extremists from prisons to discredit the rebellion. Syrian rebel groups and former Syrian regime officials have alleged this happened in the summer and fall of 2011 during the build-up to the Syrian civil war.
Presently, the regime’s narrative on the protests is to claim that peacefully expressing grievances is acceptable, but rioting is not. Press TV and other state outlets have sought to bifurcate the protests. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Tuesday that people “have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction.”
However, the same regime that boasts their citizens’ rights has restricted their Internet-use and began to crack down on the protests. Helobi also pointed out that in an effort to discredit the protesters the regime is accusing the US and Israel of being behind the unrest.
Iranian society is eating itself alive, Helobi says. Competition for jobs is intense. There is also a major contrast between the publicly enforced theocracy on the streets and Iranians at home in Tehran.
Helobi described a seeming lawlessness when it comes to other aspects as well. “The government allows drug use,” he said. “Weed, everything... When you walk on the street it looks like many people are high.” He claimed that the prevalence of drug use, which has been a multi-decade problem in Iran, has dulled people from the social problems and provided them an outlet not to focus on economic issues. Despite this, “You can find drugs but not alcohol,” he says.
He also says he found a surprising amount of prostitution. The desperation of poverty is driving women to sell their bodies to make some money. He saw prostitutes in hotels and elsewhere who charged only $10.
Helobi also found there to be a really high number of homeless people on the streets. He says he saw them in the city center and in various public markets.
Overall, he said, the country feels “like a zoo.” He described the people he met as acting like they were in a kind of cage or giant prison, worried about having foreign contacts and worried to share their photos online or with outsiders. “People told me, delete my contact when you leave,” he said. He chalked this up to the constant fear of the government and paid informants that is keeping the people on edge. “If I told the government where a protest might be I could get $1,000,” he said. So the people believe intelligence agents are everywhere.
In contrast to Syria’s Mahabharata, the Iranian intelligence operation is far more sophisticated. “In Syria, only the intelligence people worked with other government officials, so it was difficult for them to get information because everyone knew who they were.” But in Iran, he says, the state’s ability to infiltrate the civilian population is much greater.
The people are angry at foreigners as well. “They hate Syrians because so many Iranians died fighting in Syria,” and they are suspicious of separatism among minority groups such as Kurds.
Now the Iranian satellite TV channels are showing the protesters burning schools and buildings. The regime is pushing people not to go out and protest. “Tehran will face protests in coming days,” Helobi said. But there will be a purposeful attempt to use the violence as an excuse to crack down on the people.
Despite the havoc, Helobi suggested that there may be a chance at compromise as well from the regime. “If you look at the protesters you can see there are more women than men. Women have many demands. They say they don’t want hijabs anymore, and they want freedom.”
Rouhani might be willing to compromise on some of these demands because many Iranians from different walks of life are protesting. But, he says, it’s not clear. “There is no Internet and they are in total darkness there.”
He also says that some protesters blame Rouhani for having done nothing in the last years to alleviate people’s suffering. They see him as close-minded, even in comparison to the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was widely seen as seeking to improve the lives of the poor through schemes such as the Mehr Housing projects. Many of these were called a failure by the current government.
Nevertheless, the protests will likely end unless they receive some boost of support, either from within Iran or from supporters outside the country. “If you don’t fund them they will shut up today or tomorrow,” said Helobi. Likewise, he said, if the government concedes in giving them some food to satisfy that hunger, the protests will likely dissipate.