A fresh wave of strikes was reported in Iran this week raising the possibility of a repeat of the nationwide protests last year that sought to topple the government of President Hassan Rouhani and the removal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The situation that arose in Iran last year late in December witnessed demonstrations against economic hardships spread to 80 cities and towns and saw at least 25 people killed during the protests.
But the latest round of partially observed strikes and protests that began on Monday and continued on Tuesday seemed to have quelled as Reuters reported a return to normalcy in Tehran on Wednesday despite conflicting reports on social media about strikes elsewhere in the country.
More than half of the traders at Tehran’s historical Grand Bazaar, which is still one of the most important places of commerce in Iran, in a rare move began their strikes on Monday to protest against the economic conditions in the country.
Thousands of shop owners shuttered stores before gathering at the gates of the shopping centre that is split into several corridors over 10 km (6.2 miles) in length and urged others to close their shops as well.
Iranian police patrolled the bazaar and have accused protesters of causing damage to public property.
Riot police also broke windows of closed shops, striking parked motorcycles with batons, according to some videos circulating on social media which could not be independently verified.
Metro stations near the bazaar were also closed for hours as a result of protests, Iranian media reported.
Some protesters at the bazaar were mad at shopkeepers who refused to close and shouted at them “cowards” while others even called for the removal of the most powerful authority in the country, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei.
Other posts on social media shared online also showed citizens confront police in front of the parliament building around 3 km (1.8 miles) from the bazaar on Monday.
Demonstrators were decrying rising costs of living, demanding that politicians move swiftly to resolve the country’s chronic economic woes, local media reported.
Security forces fired tear gas at them. Social media posts showed protesters screaming, "They attacked us with tear gas!"
The partial strikes continued on Tuesday.
“Around 60 percent of the shops were closed during the protests,” a Tehran-based Iranian journalist, who didn’t want to be named because of the security concerns, told TRT World on Tuesday.
A number of people were arrested in downtown Tehran on Monday for "inciting turmoil" and "forcibly shutting down" shops at grand bazaar,” Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, the prosecutor general of Tehran, said on Tuesday.
Dowlatabadi called the strikes a US plot to provoke unrest and “civil disobedience” in Iran through economic pressures against the country.
"The atmosphere for the work, life and livelihood of the people must be secure, and the judiciary must confront those who disrupt economic security," Khamenei said on Wednesday in a meeting with judiciary officials, according to his official website.
Nuclear deal and the drop in rial value
US President Donald Trump decided in May to withdraw from world powers' deal with Iran on its nuclear programme and some US sanctions are to be reimposed in August and some in November.
The Iranian rial has come under heavy pressure from the US sanctions threat.
The latest protests erupted after the Iranian rial, that stood at 42,890 at the end of last year, dropped to around 90,000 against the dollar in the unofficial market.
In April, Iranian authorities announced they were unifying the dollar's official and black market exchange rates at a single level of 42,000, and banning any trade at other rates under the threat of arrest.
Not only is the Irani rial’s collapse alarming for the country's economy, it also leaves the private sector short of investment.
There are record levels of unemployment, which mean a third of under-30-year-olds are out of work, further complicating matters for the government.
Many Iranian traders and importers face difficulties obtaining foreign currency, which they need to pay for imported commodities.
But politicians in the Iranian capital are no strangers to facing public dissent.
“Tehran has long turned a blind eye to the problems of Iranian people, so those who are facing hardships have started to raise their voices,” the Iranian journalist added.
“Iran’s economy was not in good condition even before the sanctions were lifted. People didn’t enjoy economic well-being,” he said.
Threat of spread of protests
Iran's parliament held a closed-door session on Tuesday to discuss the country’s economic situation.
MP Fatima Zul Qadr told Iran’s IRNA news agency that parliamentarians had discussed “developments pertaining to the [Iranian] currency market and demonstrations that occurred Monday in Tehran.”
The strikes were not observed just in Tehran, in the eastern province of Hormuzgan local traders also observed a strike in a show of support to their protesting colleagues in the capital.
Pictures also showed shopkeepers on strike in other cities, including Isfahan, Arak, Shiraz, Tabriz and Kermanshah.
"Even in the worst case, I promise that the basic needs of Iranians will be provided. We have enough sugar, wheat and cooking oil. We have enough foreign currency to inject into the market," Hassan Rouhani, president of the nation, said in a speech broadcast live on state television on Tuesday.
A failing policy
Rouhani was seen as a close ally by the Western countries when he came to power in 2013.
One of his main pledges was to ease international sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme and bring economic prosperity to the long-time suffering nation under the sanctions.
With Rouhani, Iranians hoped to become an open country to the world rather than an isolated one.
Rouhani appealed to many moderates, at the same time, he was loyal to the system that has been run by the Supreme Leader Khamanei.
Thus, hardliners in the country supported ‘moderate’ Rouhani in the past to enhance the state’s security in hopes of healing the country's crippled economy.
However, at this point, Rouhani seems to be failing at keeping his promise and faces growing opposition against his government.
Hardliners in action
Some hardliners demanded the renewal of elections or the replacement of Rouhani's civilian government with a military-led one.
An article from Iran’s the Sobh e No daily described Rouhani's government as being ready to "bow down to foreign threats and sit at the negotiation table," the Fars news agency, a publication believed to have close ties to Iran's hardline paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reported on Monday.