Since Thursday last week, Iran has been gripped by a new social unrest across a number of cities. Naz Massoumi gives some context to the unfolding crisis.
The recent unrest began in the eastern city of Mashhad out of anger over economic issues, low wages, rising prices and unemployment, but morphed rapidly and unexpectedly into a political opposition against the government and spread north west to Kermamshah and other parts of the country.
A government crackdown has led to violent confrontations between police and protesters. At the last count, more than twenty people have died.
The protests took both the authorities and many observers by surprise, causing some confusion about what has sparked them and how they escalated so quickly.
They are the largest protests in the country since the 2009 election crisis, where a wave of protests known as the Green Movement took to the streets to contest electoral fraud, following the re-election of incumbent President Ahmadinejad against the reformist Mousavi.
While the Green Movement in 2009 was defeated, the political fallout only exacerbated deep divisions within the ruling class. Riddled with internal conflicts since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, these factions are unofficially grouped around a struggle between conservatives (or hardliners) versus reformists.
In 2013, the ‘moderate’ centrist Rouhani became the reformist candidate of choice (based on a limited and vetted selection) and was elected President, promising political and social reforms, a nuclear deal that would bring an end to Western sanctions and to address the chronic economic crisis. Rouhani was recently elected for a second term in 2017.
But whereas in 2009 the movement was united around a civil rights demand for the vote, the recent unrest is characterised by smaller, sporadic and decentralised protests without a clear leadership, located mainly in the provinces (and less in the capital Tehran) and taking place in areas usually comprising a majority of ‘conservative’ supporters. Similarly, the protesters are also said to be drawn mainly from the working class and lower middle classes, which appears to explain the absence of the emblems or slogans of the Green Movement which was considered to have been comprised of more middle class support.
What lies behind the protests? Anger has mainly been fuelled by Rouhani’s austerity policies and his new budget. One of the most controversial decisions in the budget was to cut state subsidies – cash handouts – with the announcement of a 50% increase in the price of fuel and eggs.
Rising prices have combined with indignation at corruption, tax avoidance and embezzlement, heaping further frustrations on a young population without work (with youth unemployment at 31%). This has come on the back of rising workers’ struggles, including protests from civil servants, teachers, nurses and bus drivers in Tehran. In September, oil workers went on strike in Arak against lay-offs and unpaid wages; Arak was one of the cities that witnessed protests over the last few days.
Reports suggest the protests over prices were initially organised by conservative supporters in Mashhad, in order to bring pressure on Rouhani – but got quickly out of control. Mashhad is the home of the cleric Ebrahim Raisi, tipped as a potential successor to Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader, and who stood against Rouhani in the election in May this year campaigning against the detrimental impact of Rouhani’s economic policies on the poor.
Rouhani, like the reformist Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani before him, has sought to liberalise Iran’s economy through privatisation, deregulation and limited public spending, as well as opening up Iran’s state-owned industries to foreign capital. The aim of these neoliberal policies is supposedly to loosen the grip of the clergy and Revolutionary Guards on the economy.
This includes the bonyads– charitable institutions that were nationalised during the revolution aiming to support welfare and redistribute wealth to the poor, but which have now turned into bureaucratic, corrupt state capitalist enterprises. Raisi became the head of one of the most wealthy and powerful bonyad, Astan-e Qods-e Razavi in Mashhad, in March 2016.
Neoliberal policies have left those institutions untouched but have increased inequality for the majority. This might explain how protests which began against rising prices and for “bread, land, freedom” quickly turned into opposition to Rouhani and Khamenei as well as anger with the system as a whole. But, as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi argues in an excellent piece, these protests are not entirely new and have historical precedents, such as those under Rafsanjani’s second term in the 1990s.
Many on the left have rightly pointed to the more problematic calls for support for the return of the Shah’s monarchy as well against Iranian involvement in Lebanon/Palestine (‘Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I give my life to Iran’). These slogans are, in part, motivated by anger against Iran’s foreign interventions in Syria and Yemen, Iran’s funding of Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Rouhani’s increased military spending and the failures of the nuclear deal to bring an end to sanctions.
It also represents a more dangerous turn towards anti-Arab racism – summed up by the slogan ‘we are Aryan, we don’t worship Arabs’ – and a Farsi nationalism popular amongst monarchists abroad which idolises Iran’s pre-Islamic history. As we have seen in other parts of the world, economic grievances without a clear political focus, can find xenophobic and nationalist articulations.
However, it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on these slogans. If anything, they represent a confused and contradictory articulation of anger against the system and arguably many of them are unequally amplified by oppositional groups outside of Iran through social media.
The same groups have a tendency to overestimate protests like these as a sign that the system is about to fall. While it is not clear how the protests will develop, they reflect the depth of anger over a combination of political and economic issues. As yet, they do not represent a significant enough threat to the system unless they win over larger sections of the population on a broader set of demands against austerity and corruption.
Most importantly, they will have to do so in the wider context of US imperialism in the Middle East, now spearheaded by the hawkish and erratic Trump. Reeling from its catastrophic military failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the US is desperate to regain control in the region, backed by a now belligerent Saudi Arabia and Israel – all seeking to capitalise on unrest in Iran for their own imperialist plans in the region. Having endured the crippling effects of years of sanctions, the hypocrisy of Trump’s support for the protesters will not be lost on them. To that end, they would undoubtedly welcome our calls for the lifting of sanctions and opposition to any impending wars when Trump comes to visit Britain at the end of February.
But the consequences of these protests should not be underestimated. We have, in neighbouring Syria, an example of where a genuine social revolutionary uprising seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, in the context of a civil war and foreign interference, quickly came under the tutelage of imperial powers. As such, the left in Britain must avoid the twin errors of simply supporting the protests in Iran without adopting a critical perspective on its political direction or, conversely, uncritically backing the Iranian government against US imperialism.