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Source: RFE/RL

Jul 14, 2023

'Not Our Enemies': Iran's Crackdown On Protest By Disabled War Veterans Triggers Outrage

Iranian veterans of the devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s are widely regarded as heroes, with tens of thousands disabled by chronic illnesses caused by exposure to chemical weapons used during the conflict.

But when dozens of veterans staged a protest on July 8 in Tehran over what they said were their inadequate pensions, police violently broke up the rally and reportedly fired tear gas at the demonstrators.

Amateur videos posted online appeared to show a protester lying on the ground and struggling to breathe. Many veterans suffer from respiratory and lung diseases.Other protesters were heard chanting "criminals," in an apparent reference to the authorities. Several people were reportedly detained.

The government's harsh response to the veterans' protest has triggered widespread anger in Iran, which has been the scene of regular protests over soaring inflation and rising poverty and unemployment.

"I was speechless. It was very upsetting," said a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "Our children and families see this and they ask, 'Why did you fight during the war?'"

The veteran, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the disabled veterans staged the protest over plans by the authorities to slash some of their benefits. Others called on the government to pursue compensation for the veterans from Iraq, which started the conflict by invading Iran.

"[Authorities] make promises, they spent our money elsewhere or for their own purposes, we don't know what they're doing. They're decreasing our medical and living assistance," the veteran said in a telephone interview from Tehran.

The crackdown on the veterans' protest, which was held outside the offices of the state-run Foundation for Martyrs and Veteran Affairs, led to an outpouring of anger on social media.

Prominent actor Parviz Parastuyi, a veteran of the war with Iraq, blasted Iranian Vice President Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, who is the head of the Foundation for Martyrs and Veteran Affairs. He said the protesters are "not our enemies, they're disabled veterans."

"They pushed back the enemy so that Iran remained Iran," Parastui said in a statement published by Iranian media on July 9.

Mohsen Bozorgi, an official at the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, said they had held talks with the protesters, who he claimed left the meeting "calmly."

Bozorgi also said the issue of war compensation is a complicated international matter that is "in no way" related to the foundation. But he added that the foundation considers pursuing the demands of the veterans as its "national mission."

He also criticized critics who he said reacted "hastily" without having "sufficient information."

The hard-line Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), on July 11 denied that the police had used tear gas to disperse the protesters. But the agency said the authorities were investigating whether pepper spray was used.

Tasnim claimed the police had intervened due to a "conflict" between several of the protesters.

Iranian officials often describe disabled veterans of the war with Iraq, which killed or wounded around 1 million people on both sides, as living martyrs. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has previously said that "sometimes their virtues are even greater than the martyrs."

But many war veterans have complained of economic hardships amid the deepening economic crisis in Iran. They have staged several protests in recent years and called on the authorities to improve their living conditions.

An unknown number of veterans, who survived the mustard and nerve-gas attacks launched by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the war, died during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is interesting that [the authorities] declare that everything we have is because of the martyrs, veterans, those who sacrificed their lives….But in practice there is no such thing," an online petition signed by a group of war veterans said.

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