The experience of street protests in Iran last week raises an essential question for the states rivals and supporters- to what extent are similar protests possible in the future? To answer this question requires, more than anything else, an answer to the question as to what really happened last week? As more than 70 cities in Iran witnessed protests.
To answer the last question, various explanations have been offered, each pointing to people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation. But still the key question remains; why did the recent dissatisfaction differ from any other time in the history of Iran?
Apart from the state’s narrative that recent developments were a result of ‘foreign conspiracies’ – and it is hard to envisage that even those who make such a claim are actually convinced of it – the proposed analyses have mainly focused on socio-economic problems. These analyses have emphasized specific socio-economic problems such as the crisis in financial institutions, high food prices, and rising unemployment figures, as the main stimulus of the street protests.
There is no doubt that such problems have been significant in the widespread dissatisfaction that exists in Iran. But what recently has happened in less than a week, has been unprecedented, as many cities in Iran have witnessed protests with unprecedented chants. As a result, there is doubt if the ‘main cause’ of recent protests is just economic.
It is obvious that the credit crisis, livelihood problems for workers and teachers, and the closing down of business units has made living for a wide range of Iranians difficult. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that such a thing – as livelihood problems resulting from the corruption or institutional inefficiency – is nothing new.
Likewise, problems such as inflation, unemployment or the squandering of national resources, despite their widespread impact on millions of Iranian households, are not new and have never been absent from Iran’s public sphere – especially in the past decade.
Even some rather new crises in Iranian society and economy cannot explain the unprecedented dimension of the recent protests. For example, the water crisis in recent years has made many people in Iran miserable. However, it is obvious from the ground that, along with the people that have suffered because of this water crisis, protesters included many people from cities that have not experienced this crisis.
Given these various facts, it is not methodologically defensible to argue that the reason for such protests has been a series of economic problems, that have fed into existing social, environmental and political crises, leading to street protests. This method can be considered as what is called an ‘analysis from the end’.
In fact, what is more, probable is that for many protesters, the above-mentioned factors are not the main cause of the problem, but the result of a single problem, which is the ruler’s inefficiency.
When looking at names of more than 70 cities that have witnessed protests over the past week one realizes that in more than 4/5 of them, there has been at least one protest stimulated by issues evolving around livelihood and unions.
Meanwhile, a look at 30 chants during these protests reveals that almost most of them were political– meaning that they were directed towards the state and its policies.
It seems that these protests have taken place from the viewpoint that ‘our’ problems are economic, but ‘you’ statesmen do not have the ability to solve them. This is exactly where economic and political demands are complementary to one another.
» ‘Hope against hope’ syndrome
Even if one was to accept the hypothesis that the recent protests were economically stimulated but had political motivations, the question that remains; is the dissatisfaction of many people with the rulers a new phenomenon?
In other words, what has happened to stimulate the Iranian people, who have always had livelihood problems, to demonstrate in the streets in such an unprecedented way?
For example, why weren’t such street protests visible during the last year of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency when inflation rates reached 39% (the second highest inflation rate in the history of Iran after 1995).
One explanation for this phenomenon can be the so-called ‘hope against hope syndrome’, which I had mentioned in an analysis in 2016 on the possible consequences of the JCPOA’s impact on solving economic problems in Iran.
In that analysis, it was explained that ‘an individual or a certain society can bear tough conditions in ordinary situations, but if it becomes deeply hopeful for change in the conditions and then loses hope, it will be disrupted’. The analysis clearly emphasized that such a shock can make people look for ‘radically different processes’ and unpredictable reactions.
In fact, it seems that what has caused street protests in many parts of the country during the past month can be linked to the hopelessness of a considerable group of people about the prospect of solving economic difficulties – particularly after widespread hope was created in the past.
For example, even though the inflation rate surpassed all records during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure, there was this general hope in Iranian society that with the end of this government and unprecedented international sanctions to be lifted, conditions would improve. The coming to power of President Hassan Rouhani and the nuclear deal being signed, naturally public hope increased.
Meanwhile, stemming from domestic and foreign reasons – ranging from Iran’s military costs in regional conflicts, the continuation of financial corruption in Iran and many sanctions post-President Donald Trump taking power in the US –economic and livelihood crises have continued.
Such crises have been playing out under conditions of intense political conflict between rivals and supporters of President Rouhani, and as the levels of corruption and violation by governmental organizations have considerably increased. This increased the sensitivity of the public concerning news of economic corruption and mismanagement. This sensitivity has considerably increased because of the availability of information via new technology and social media.
An example of this was the extensive attention given to the 2018 budget bill. The budgetary figures are published each year, but this year, the sensitivity had increased because of social media, so that even some observers – wrongly – thought that these numbers had been published for the first time.
Interestingly, for social media users, a significant part of their new information about state corruption and mismanagement resulted from a rivalry between opposing factions in the establishment, which convinced the public in the ‘general inefficiency of the state’.
For example, in the past months, those close to Khamenei who have continuously criticized President Rouhani’s government have faced exposure by supporters of the government. At the same time, Khamenei has repeatedly spoken about the inefficiency of the government in solving the economic problems, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s team repeatedly emphasized the ‘general corruption’ of state organizations.
Under such conditions, when protests were held in the first city, Mashhad, even the anti-government chants were immediately welcomed by the anti-government media, making a hasty supposition to be made that this new development is nothing but a new scene for conflict between opposing factions.
But from the very first protests, the chants quickly targeted the totality of the regime, and before security organizations had reached a certain conclusion about how to overcome these protests, they spread to other cities. Meanwhile, the apparent confusion of security organizations about the first protests encouraged protesters in other cities.
» Prospect of livelihood protests
The Iranian state officials continue to remain confused, even after one week of protests, in fact, they are still quite oblivious. Many of the officials’ are confused, shifting the blame of the protests to political rivals, to external countries, and even, to an extent, riding the wave of protests. Even some politicians and the media, in short period of time, expressed all three positions.
Iran has powerful means for security confrontation with urban protests and subduing them. But preventing such protests that don’t have any specific leader can be much more complicated compared with political protests of the middle class, in particular, if there is no proper analysis of the roots of the crisis or any changes in the policies of state decision-makers.
Under the present conditions, it is highly probable that inconsistent components of the Iranian regime will be unable to adjust the costs of certain policies and institutions to solve critical livelihood issues. And at the same time, continuous exposure to the violations of both factions – without any practical solution to such violations – will result in the society becoming more hopeless about any improvement in the conditions.
As far as such grounds exist in Iranian society, it is logically possible that an amalgamation between livelihood problems, hopelessness, and increased public information about state corruption will prepare the ground for a new wave of protests in the future. Such protests, like those last week, might surprise everyone with their time, place and extension.
Translated Material: BBC Persian
Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of The Arabain GCIS