On the 28th of December, thousands of Iranians in Mashhad, the Islamic republic’s second largest city, gathered in front of the municipal building to protest against the rising prices of eggs and other basic goods. Surging from regional provinces, the protest gained further momentum reaching the doorsteps of President Rouhani and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. It is now the largest popular protest Iran has seen since 2009. With 42,000 demonstrators participating in this mass display of dissent, the protests span 80 mainly small cities and towns, leaving at least 21 people dead and over 3,700 arrested.
While it is tempting to portray these protests as a call for regime change, the current unrest is different from previous uprisings in Iran. In 1999, university students protested against the capture of political prisoners, demanding their release and increased social freedoms for all Iranians. In the 2009 Green Revolution, reform-minded, educated, middle-class citizens protested in the streets of Tehran against former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his disputed re-election. Now, Iran is witnessing a sporadic working-class movement that lacks the organizational simplicity and narrow demands that previous uprisings possess. Nor does it solely come from the reformist faction of the polity.
Protesters are challenging all the institutions of the Iranian state— the reformist faction of President Hassan Rouhani, the Ayatollah, and the hardliners—for their recent policy failures. Slogans declaring economic grievances interweave with chants against the government, while demands for free speech, women’s rights, and minority rights have been scant.
These “bread riots” touch on the connection between economic inequality and political injustice in the country. And their concerns did not materialize overnight.
For the past 5 years, neoliberal reforms enacted by President Rouhani have failed to bear fruit for the Iranian people. While Iran’s economy has grown since the nuclear deal was struck in 2015, not everyone benefits from this growth. Rebounding from a deep-seated recession, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) records that real GDP grew by 6.6 percent in 2016/2017. Researchers have pointed out that this growth stems from an increase in oil revenue, which mainly benefits elites in Tehran and other major cities. Youth unemployment remains above 26 percent and in some areas, it is higher than 45 percent. Inflation is running high at 9.9 percent.
Iranian hardliners utilized these economic grievances to rally against Rouhani’s government and his moderate faction. In fact, there are reports that a group of anti-Rouhani clerics was originally responsible for encouraging residents to take to the streets of Mashhad and spreading videos of the protests nationwide to create unrest. But, those clerics have tapped into an existing frustration from the masses—an anger which has resulted in isolated, spontaneous protests across the country in the past.
In 2017, workers rallied against Rouhani’s policies which favored employers and demanded the recognition of worker associations. Teachers moved to criticize his administration because of unpaid pensions and low salaries. Coal miners blocked a convoy belonging to President Rouhani out of anger over delayed wages and poor safety conditions that had previously resulted in a deadly mine explosion which cost 26 lives.
Since his election, President Rouhani has pursued a string of neoliberal policies that disadvantage the working class, choosing to pursue an agenda of austerity that cuts social welfare spending. Most recently, he was unable to respond quickly to earthquakes in the Kermanshah province and sent minimal aid for the victims, who were forced to sleep in tents this past winter. Corruption scandals have enveloped members of his government, including his brother Hossein Fereydoun. This is particularly conspicuous since Rouhani ran on an anti-corruption agenda to distinguish himself from the previous Ahmadinejad government. The opposing camp is no less guilty of corruption, but they have deftly politicized this issue to critique Rouhani.
It is unsurprising then that workers are angry after a budget plan to cut cash subsidies by $5.3 billion spread throughout social media in early December. The money would have benefited 30 million Iranians, but instead, the Revolutionary Guards received a 120% increase in funding, alongside the Basij, the Iranian militia. Moreover, the proposal also allocated funds to religious foundations located overseas, which are owned by high-ranking Iranian clerics.
In an economy where the average household budget for middle-class families has fallen by 20 percent, crude flauntings of wealth further exacerbate the economic divide. Instagram accounts like @RichKidsofTehran, document the lives of sons and daughters of authorities and businessmen who have capitalized on lucrative infrastructure contracts showing them partying away in nightclubs, wearing designer handbags, and driving Porsches and Maseratis. All the while, their middle-class counterparts struggle to obtain adequate incomes, even with college degrees.
“On Instagram, I saw a picture of a woman in Tehran with her S.U.V., who wrote she spends $3,000 on her pets each month,” Mehdi, a resident of Izeh, a town in Khuzestan Province, said to the New York Times. “A person can live here with that money for a year. I got angry.”
When we see where these protests occur, not in universities, metropolitan centers, or in slums, but rather in downtown areas of regional towns, it is clear that those who participate in today’s protests are not the same as before. They are the working class who live with middle-class aspirations and expectations but are threatened by poverty. And they are mostly young, with 90 percent of those arrested in the protests under 25 years old—a different generation from those participating in the 2009 Green Movement protests.
The rise of this group defeats the dominant narrative that the Iranian political establishment, as an oil state, buys loyalty from working-class citizens through welfare handouts. Kevan Harris, a historical sociologist from the University of California Los Angeles, has analyzed voting patterns and its relationship to class in Iran and discovered that recipients of aid from conservative-associated organizations voted no differently than those on welfare. These protests give further proof that the working-class is willing to rebuke not only the conservative establishment, but also the reformist opposition that sees itself as a driver of progress.
Indeed, authorities were caught by surprise at the scale of the sporadic protests. Facing provincial towns where protesters and members of the police force were neighbors, the government sent security forces from Tehran to launch crackdowns and arrests. But, Rouhani’s own actions seemed to belie a deeper shock. He remained silent until the fourth night of the protests, when he finally said that “people have the right to criticize,” while denouncing “violence and [the destruction of] public property.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, has gone further and even accused the CIA and Israel’s Mossad of being the “main projector” of the unrest, and pointed to the Saudi government as a source of funding for protestors.
What is surprising is that reformists have begun to echo the points made by hardliners like the Ayatollah. Mohajerani, a former minister of culture and an exiled pro-government reformist, blamed Israel and called the protests a rootless movement, while reformist journalist Ebrahim Nabavi, belittled the protesters as “beetroot sellers and cherry pickers.”
Many experts see these protests as a critical juncture for Rouhani and his allies. By parroting the hardliners, the reformist camp has discredited itself as harbingers of cultural progress. Moreover, while the hardliner clerical faction of Iranian politics is also a target of the demonstrations, Rouhani’s administration is most closely associated with the failed economic policies. In an interview with Bloomberg, Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council speculates that these protests “will serve as a warning shot for the regime that they have serious structural problems to address […]”
Recently, Rouhani has sought to shift blame to the hardliners, pointing out the rampant corruption occurring among their faction. He further criticized the clerical establishment’s curbs on personal freedoms, commenting, “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations.”
Rouhani suggested that the clerical establishment’s restrictions are far more damaging for Iranians compared to his own economic failures. He asked, “Some imagine that the people only want money and a good economy, but will someone accept a considerable amount of money per month when for instance the cyber network would be completely blocked?”
While these tactics may divert the political pressure on the reformists, tangible results for economic improvement may be the only path for change. In an interview with Jadaliyya, Arang Keshavarzian, associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, speculates that current elites may move towards institutionalizing avenues of citizen participation, such as by recognizing labor associations. Keshavarzian contends that this is a wake-up call for the reformists that have, so far, minimally engaged with working-class communities, except when viewing them as potential voters during election years.
Outside of his own policies, however, Rouhani’s hands may be restrained by President Trump’s decision to either continue or end the so-called nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US government has seemingly shown tremendous fervor in advocating for the Iranian people, with President Trump tweeting “great support for the Iranian people” and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley forcing discussions on the Iranian protests during a UN Security Council meeting. However, the current administration has also been highly critical of the nuclear deal and has threatened to tear it apart—an act that would reinstate sanctions and further harm Iran’s dire economy. For now though, Trump has decided to temporarily extend sanctions relief, and his final decision is still pending.
During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, left wing sympathizers, nationalists, and Islamists were united against a program of modernization that marginalized the disadvantaged and created high rates of inequality. After decades of what Keshavarzian calls “the hollowing out of the state,” Rouhani is now facing the same test.
Even if the protests wane in power and size, the anger and frustration felt by the people will still remain—the youth will stay jobless, the poor will stay hungry, and the workers will stay unpaid. Without Rouhani actively creating policies that improve the livelihood of the working-class, nothing will change for the Iranian people.