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Since Thursday December 28th, Iranians have once again taken to the streets. Thousands, perhaps more, have protested in mass displays of general discontent, voicing economic, social, and political demands. These mark the largest protests since the 2009 millions-strong uprising against the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also known as the Green Movement.

By La Voz – East Bay/Oakland

Anytime there is popular resistance in Iran, global and regional powers quickly make efforts to exploit the situation through meaningless “support” in order to advance their own cynical self-interest. This is an unfortunate reality that every Iranian knows well, yet this geopolitical noise never has—and likely never will—make the people shy away from demanding all, yes all, that is due to them.

The Roots of the Protests: Neo-liberal Policies

The protests started in the city of Mashhad, the country’s second largest city, where protesters chanted explicitly economic demands. Facing water cannons and tear gas, they spoke against the rising cost of living and government mismanagement of the budget, corruption, and high prices.[1] In nearby smaller cities, protesters chanted “Down with High Prices,” “Down with [President] Rouhani” and “Down with the Dictator.”

Days before, President Rouhani had submitted an austerity budget which cut cash transfers to the poor and raised fuel prices by 50%, among other measures.[2] While calls for protests were shared by word-of-mouth through social media, it is unclear where these calls originated from, even among many of those who participated in the first Masshad protests.

Some believe that the protests were originally called for by conservatives to the right of centrist President Rouhani as a way to undermine him. If so, the protests quickly spread beyond their control and erupted into general anti-government protests targeted against all political factions. The austerity budget became the last straw and pushed people to voice their general economic frustration and take to the streets.

Young people have also participated heavily in these protests, no longer able to face a precarious future while the youth unemployment rate remains above 30 %.[3] While expansion of higher education has been fairly successful under the Islamic Republic, the creation of so many credentialed young people with highly limited job openings has exacerbated a youth unemployment bulge.

Protests soon spread to other cities such as Kermanshah, where the local population was devastated by a recent earthquake in which government relief efforts proved incompetent and corrupt.[4]

One key difference of these episodes from the 2009 uprising and previous nationwide protests has been that they have expanded in poorer cities in the periphery rather than the relatively better off capital Tehran.[5] While demands have at times been contradictory, one of the most repeated chants across different cities has been “employment, bread, freedom.” Some have demonstrated discontent with all factions of the government, chanting “reformists, conservatives, the story is over,” (eslaahtalab, osoulgara, dige tamoome maajera).”[6]

Indeed, while the conservatives have tried to pin the country’s economic problems solely on President Rouhani’s latest austerity budget, in reality most major factions in the Iranian political scene across the spectrum from reformist to conservative have supported some form of neoliberal economic policy. In 2006, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for a privatization “jihad,” announcing that 80% of the public sector economy should be privatized.[7]

Various factions of the state have also supported import liberalization[8] and labor deregulation. One of the most visible effects of neo-liberalization in Iran has been widespread labor deregulation. A 1990 labor law that offered some forms of social insurance and pensions to workers was gutted in the early 2000s so that enterprises which employ fewer than ten workers were exempted.[9] Workers’ strikes have occurred frequently in the last decade, including in recent months, among manufacturing workers, civil servants and government workers, sugarcane workers, bus drivers, and teachers among others.[10] These workers protest months of unpaid wages and layoffs.

Independent workers’ organizations have supported the protests, denouncing the “poverty and misery of millions of people, unemployment of millions of workers and youths, the beatings of street vendors and the killings of Kurdish koolbars [porters who carry goods on their backs and transport them between the Iran and Iraq border], the imposition of wages several times below poverty level on workers, and the imprisonment and torture in response to any demands of social justice and freedom.”[11]

Unrest Grows and Contradictions of the Protests

As the unrest grew, diverse and at times contradictory chants increased. Some denounced misplaced priorities in the government budget, demanding that the government should prioritize  making the lives of Iranians easier, rather than spending money on intervention in Syria. Yet others chanted more uncritically nationalist slogans like “Neither Lebanon, nor Gaza, my life only for Iran.” Yet still other protesters denounced the lack of internationalist solidarity in such a slogan and quipped back with “Whether Gaza, or Iran, Down with the Oppressors!”[12]

While the Iranian Revolution was powered in part by demands for economic justice and equity, the gap between rich and poor has continued to expand in highly visible and volatile ways. As Amir Arian argues, “Iranians see pictures of the family members of the authorities drinking and hanging out on beaches around the world, while their daughters are arrested over a fallen head scarf and their sons are jailed for buying alcohol. The double standard has cultivated an enormous public humiliation.”[13]

Facing a toxic combination of youth unemployment, neoliberal policies, social control, and compulsion of conservative norms, young Iranians brave the streets time and again to demand a better future. While there was widespread cross-class participation in the early days of the 2009 uprising against the disputed reelection of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the demands then centered on political freedoms. Yet these current protests have refocused debates about Iranian popular resistance in a direction that more explicitly acknowledges class.

A recent study conducted by sociologist Kevan Harris, who has conducted years of fieldwork in Iran and has had access to important statistics and archives, disputes a fairly common perception that the poorest Iranians are allied with the most right-wing elements in the Iranian political scene due to the association of these elements with certain welfare organizations that provide modest financial aid. This study, conducted via a random sample of thousands of Iranians, found that on the contrary, “individuals linked to welfare programs currently or formerly associated with conservative politicians or factions…are not voting differently on average than people linked to welfare programs associated with technocratic or moderate politicians or factions.”[14] Again, this would support the position that people are disappointed in many, often opposing, factions whether reformist, centrist, or conservative/hardliner.

These protests are important displays of popular discontent with the status quo. It is true that their demands have been contradictory at times and that they suffer from a lack of leadership that can provide alternatives. It is also true that U.S. imperialists, as is their fashion, will try to take advantage of the events in whatever way they can. Indeed, in many families, family members have been divided about joining, with some taking to the streets to voice important demands while others are wary of both the volatile domestic factionalism and external foreign intervention.[15]

Iranians know well that U.S. imperialism has been part of the problem, as sanctions have clamped down on their access to vital medicines and fuel, bestowing economic hardships. Yet they also know that the Iranian government has continued to advance austerity and mismanage the budget, that employers go months without paying workers’ wages, that young people await a precarious future of insecurity.

Even if protests once again do not result in any immediate change, the centering of working-class and marginalized sectors in these events against all the forces against them has suddenly changed the story of Iranian popular resistance, a story that will continue to unwind for many years to come.

***

Notes:

[1] “Protestors Shout ‘Death to High Prices’ as Demonstrations Break Out in Three Iranian Cities,” – https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2017/12/protestors-shout-death-to-high-prices-as-demonstrations-break-out-in-three-iranian-cities/

[2] Trita Parsi, https://www.democracynow.org/2018/1/3/trumps_vow_to_support_iran_opposition

[3] Narges Bajoghli, “Behind the Protests in Iran,” https://jacobinmag.com/2018/01/iran-protests-hasan-rouhani-green-movement

[4] Mina Khanlarzadeh, “Iran’s Streets Again,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/irans-streets-again/

[5] Kiana Karimi, “Small-town Iran Rises Up,” https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2018/01/03/kiana-karimi/small-town-iran-rises-up/

[6] Khanlarzadeh, “Iran’s Streets Again.”

[7] Kevan Harris, The Rise of the Subcontractor State: Politics of Pseudo-Privatization in the Islamic Republic of Iran, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2013, 46.

[8] Ahmadinejad’s Import Mania, http://iranlaborreport.com/?p=197

[9] Kevan Harris, A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran, 148-149.

[10] “Spike in Labor Protests in Iran is Changing the Political Milieu,” https://en.radiozamaneh.com/articles/spike-in-labor-protests-in-iran-is-changing-the-political-milieu/

also Khanlarzadeh, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/irans-streets-again/

[11] Khanlarzadeh, “Iran’s Streets Again,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/irans-streets-again/

[12] https://twitter.com/MohamGhaznavian/status/947486349355048960/video/1

[13] Amir Arian, “Why Iranians Are Protesting,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/opinion/iran-protests-inequality.html

[14] Kevan Harris, “Unpacking the Welfare-Politics Nexus in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” https://pomeps.org/2017/12/21/unpacking-the-welfare-politics-nexus-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran/

[15] Narges Bajoghli, “Behind the Protests in Iran,” https://jacobinmag.com/2018/01/iran-protests-hasan-rouhani-green-movement