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Listen to what Iran protesters are really saying

Hamid Yazdan Panah writes that the Iranian protests aren't just about economic distress or partisan politics. They are an expression of the rage and desperation from a society that has been repressed for three decades.


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Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian refugee and attorney in the United States. He has written on Iranian affairs for Reuters, The Hill and Huffington Post. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Too often the discourse that emerges from media coverage of Iran co-opts the struggle of ordinary people in order to reinforce a specific narrative. But to really understand what is happening in Iran, you only need to listen directly to the voices of the Iranian people.

The current protests are an outward expression of rage and desperation by a population that has been repressed by a theocratic regime for more than three decades. To understand this, one need only look at the images and watch the videos emerging every day from Iran. (Editor's Note: CNN has not been able to verify the authenticity of the videos referenced in this piece, but the dates and locations from the postings match those from known protests.)

Hamid Yazdan Panah

Take the video, uploaded on December 31, of a young woman standing alone in Tehran, wearing no hijab and waving her scarf in front of her. The bravery such an act requires cannot be underestimated in a country where the government can arrest and punish a woman for not wearing a hijab in a social media post, let alone in public.

    And the recent protests go well beyond religion and politics. The administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has done much to perpetuate the myth of reform by so-called "moderates" in Iran. This includes promises of improvements with regards to civil and political rights. But, in reality, the UN reported, the human rights situation in Iran worsened during Rouhani's first term.

    If the slogans chanted by protesters are any indication, they no longer believe in Rouhani or his advisors. In this video uploaded on December 29 from Hamadan, protesters are heard chanting "Clergyman have some shame; free our society!" and "Death to Rouhani!," the latter a slogan that reportedly has been used in other protests throughout the country.

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    And many of these protesters are angry. In Ahvaz, an amateur video uploaded December 30 shows young Iranians throwing stones at security forces while chanting "Death to Khamenei," while in Mashhad protesters overturned a police vehicle and set it on fire. The Ayatollah Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran. Despite the fact that this position is not elected, the Supreme Leader has final say on all political matters including the disqualification of candidates, cabinet appointments and the control of armed forces.

    There are also equally brave acts of non-violence and civil disobedience. Dozens of protestors in Rasht staged a non-violent sit-in in the face of oncoming security forces mounted on motorcycles. The protesters chanted, "We will die! We will die! We will take back Iran!"

    All of this is not to say that the dire economic conditions in Iran are not a factor in these protests. An estimated 33% of the population lives in poverty. And the nuclear deal has done little to improve the economic realities that ordinary Iranians face, with sanctions relief mostly benefiting state firms and the Supreme Leader Khamenei's own private financial empire.

    The context of these protests is also noteworthy. This is a country which has led the world's per-capita execution rate, which routinely jails, tortures and murders dissidents, and which has no problem with the summary execution of protesters in the street.

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    The fact that protesters in Tehran are seen chanting "Death to Khamenei" in a video uploaded on January 1, even in the direct presence of security forces, shows a level of anger and frustration that we have not seen before. Uttering those words in public is enough to earn you a charge of enmity toward god and a death sentence. But, as one protester from Kermanshah noted, "When we don't have bread to eat, we are not afraid of anything."

    These protests don't require talking heads for explanation. They are about fundamental principles of freedom, opportunity and democracy -- long denied in the Islamic Republic.

    It is now clearer than ever that the people of Iran are ready to tell the world what they want. All we have to do is listen.

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