North Africa, West Asia: Interview

Iran’s decade of protests: an interview with Firoozeh Farvardin and Nader Talebi

Iranian academics Farvardin and Talebi discuss the grievances behind the protests, and their future trajectories

Gennaro Gervasio Enrico De Angelis
22 March 2021, 7.12am
Tehran's Grand Bazaar on strike in June 2018
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Omid Vahabzadeh / wikimedia commons / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

In the past few years, Iran has witnessed waves of popular protests involving large parts of the population making economic and political demands.

On 28 December 2017, demonstrations erupted in Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran. The unrest quickly extended to other cities, and continued into 2018. The protesters’ demands focused on the economy at first, but soon included political slogans against the regime.

These were the largest demonstrations in the country since the 2009 ‘Green Movement’, when supporters of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets to demand the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claiming the election results were fraudulent.

In April 2018, a series of general strikes and protests took place and continued well into 2019, involving teachers, and bus and truck drivers, as well as workers angry about the worsening economic conditions in the country.

Then, in November 2019, a final wave of protests began, continuing into the early months of 2020 before fading away.

Almost a year later, in November 2020, we met Firoozeh Farvardin and Nader Talebi, two Iranian academics based in Berlin, to discuss the causes and the grievances behind the protests, as well as their historical and future trajectories.

Before coming to Europe, both studied sociology in Iran. They are researchers at Berlin’s Humboldt University, specialising in Middle Eastern politics, nationalism, migration and gender politics.

The interview was previously published in Italian on the platform OrientXXI.

Can you give us an idea about the situation in Iran on the eve of the 2018-19 uprising, especially outside the largest cities? Is there any link between the 2019-20 movement and the 2009 Green Movement in terms of geography and class?

First, there is a huge geographical difference in the scale of the demonstrations. The 2019 wave was the largest in Iran's history, even larger than the 1979 Revolution. It involved a large number of medium and large cities, and some towns that many Iranians had never heard of in the news. We can say that Iranians learned geography through demonstrations.

Second, the violence of the state response was not comparable. According to some reports, 1,500 people (the official number is 230) were killed in three days in 2019, compared to 70 victims during the ten months of the ‘Green Movement’ protests. More than 10,000 people were arrested during the first month of the 2019 uprising. Needless to say, it was more violent in marginalised areas, with Arab and Kurdish populations, than in the central cities.

The Green Movement, on the other hand, was a middle-class protest that occurred mainly in the middle-class neighborhoods of the major cities. In its last days, when it started spreading into poorer areas, especially in Tehran, it was immediately crushed by the riot police. The Green Movement had leaders who represented it or could claim to embody it: the reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi, all of whom were later jailed or put under house arrest.

Many Iranians live under the poverty line and struggle to survive, thanks to high inflation and a minimum wage that's less than $100

The 2018-19 movements, however, was truly leaderless and spontaneous. The protests also took place in small neighbourhoods and not only in business districts. Some of the protesters were what Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat called "middle class poor". Highly educated, but with precarious employment and no prospect of finding a job suitable to their level of education, they live with precarious jobs in marginal, impoverished areas of the big cities, especially Tehran.

They started in the outskirts of Tehran rather than in the centre; they were also different types of demonstrations including teachers, workers and ordinary people in smaller towns.

So we have different mobilisations that co-existed, in different places at the same time, or sometimes in the same place. For example, even if there is no clear organic relationship between the wider street protests and workers’ protests, the two are occurring side by side, in the same cities and regions.

What were the main causes and demands behind the 2018-19 protests?

Everyone, particularly in the poorer classes, has a good reason to be angry with the system. It could be because of the economy, the political crisis or different forms of discrimination. The magnitude of the 2019 protests derives from the merging of all these grievances.

But there is also historical continuity. Between 1992 and 1995, a series of protests erupted mainly in the ‘informal settlements’ (slums) around Iran's large cities such as Tehran (notably in Islamshahr), Mashhad, Arak and Shiraz. It was a response to the post-Iran-Iraq war structural adjustment policies and privatisation programmes that followed the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, under the guidance of the IMF's policies. The revolts were repressed by the state through arrests, killings and intimidations, as happened in 2018-19.

We mustn't forget the role of US economic sanctions in the revolts of 2018-19. Beside its direct economic effect on the everyday life of people, most of the time these sanctions are used as an excuse for cuts in subsidies.

Ten years ago, it was hard to find Iranians, at least in big cities, literary dying from hunger in the country because of state subsidies, but today many Iranians live under the poverty line and struggle to survive, thanks to high inflation and a minimum wage that's less than $100.

One of the main factors was the wave of neo-liberalisation policies introduced in the post-war era and intensified under President Ahmadinejad in 2006. This resulted in many social benefits being cut. In 2012, the government launched the Resistance Economic Program, which was actually a recipe to expand these neoliberal ‘reforms’.

What were the main locations affected by the 2018-19 uprising?

Geographically speaking, the new movement included many mainly smaller cities and towns. More interestingly, it involved places that were not previously politically active.

As far as regions are concerned, Khuzestan and Kurdistan played an important part in the 2018 and 2019 uprisings, while the Green Movement protests happened almost exclusively in Persian-speaking areas.

The spread to smaller towns is a very important step, as it includes new challenges as well as new opportunities for the demonstrators. Indeed, while the youth participating in the big demonstrations in the central areas of the larger cities could always count on anonymity, this may not be the case when you’re demonstrating in a smaller town, or in your own neighbourhood.

At the same time, the spread of the protests into ‘unusual’ places has also meant much stronger popular support in the smaller towns and in the marginal areas of the metropoles.

How did the COVID-19 crisis impact the movement?

The uprising was almost over when COVID-19 hit Iran. It’s not like in Iraq, for instance, where the spread of COVID-19 worked against the uprising. That said, COVID-19 helped the Iranian regime have an ‘easier’ summer, but the mismanagement of the crisis also intensified the anger of the people, especially after the execution of a protester in August 2020.

We don’t know yet what may happen in the current ‘second wave’, but maybe it will not be decisive, as people are learning how to live with the virus. Plus, as we’ve seen in Lebanon, COVID-19 can’t stop the people from taking to the streets and protesting.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, was the movement already fading?

The last wave of demonstrations occurred between late November 2019 and late January 2020. COVID-19 officially arrived about a month later. The main demonstrations lasted four days, and faded mostly because of the brutality of the repression. Cutting off the internet also made communication between protesters much more difficult.

Moreover, without an organisation, a free press, free trade unions and political leadership, there is no way to channel people’s demands and translate them into a political platform.

It may be true that the protests can easily fade away, but it is also true that they can easily return.

You described the revolts almost as parallel mobilisations, taking place separately and spontaneously. Is there no connection between them, and no effort in creating a shared leadership and coordination?

The protests are leaderless on many levels. Of course, when it comes to workers or teachers there are more aware activists and leaders. But there is no nationwide organisation, except for the strikes by teachers, and bus and truck drivers in 2018.

The potential linking of the different protest groups is what scares the regime. This started to happen, for instance, after the Ukrainian plane crash in 2020, or even before –after the image of a young unveiled woman holding a white hijab on a stick went viral in 2018 and showed the potential of bringing together very diverse demands and very different people.

In short, there is no organic connection, but we see different groups inspired by one another and when the moment comes there is the potential that they merge into widespread demonstrations.

Are there similarities between the protests in Iran and the ‘second wave’ of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and elsewhere?

Yes. To understand the 2019–20 movements, it’s useful to look not only at the 2017-18 demonstrations, but also at events in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

For example, in the latest wave of unrest, which started at the end of 2019, the protest toolkit resembles Lebanon and, in part, Iraq: permanent sit-ins, street blockades and large rallies. All these methods are new for Iranians, and they are clearly inspired by the protests in Lebanon and Iraq.

2D6HPT8.jpg
Farvardin and Talebi say to understand Iran's protests it is useful to look at those in Lebanon (pictured in October 2020) and elsewhere | Marwan Naamani/dpa/Alamy Live News

What role did the media play, especially social media, during the last wave of protests?

Social media played an important role in the 2009 Green Movement protests, which is why the government blocked Facebook and Twitter back then. In 2019-20 it was different; when the regime cut the internet, the demonstrations kept going.

Social media is not used to organise the protests, but has an indirect role. For example, Telegram became a relevant channel for news about the demonstrations and, at a certain point, each city had its own network and channel. Social media are also primary sources for satellite TV reports.

Another role they play is to be a space in which social injustice can be made more visible and denounced, which can have some effects on mobilisations.

But by far the most relevant media in the 2019-20 uprisings were the satellite TV channels, since most people receive the news from them.

What role did the diaspora play, especially on the Left?

The opposition in exile plays a marginal role in the demonstrations. The Left barely exists as an organised force. They never recovered from the harsh repression in the 1980s, even in exile.

The fall of the Soviet Union is another reason, as with other leftist movements. So you have only some small groups, some figures.

It is quite significant that the Left is not able to do anything in relation to the last wave of demonstrations, even if they were theoretically a very fertile ground, given their economic demands and secular discourse.

Perhaps the problem is in part that they suffer from a polarisation of the discourse. They are divided around the main priorities of the Left: is the main enemy global imperialism, against which (in theory) the Islamic Republic stands? As if we have to decide between being either against the Iranian state or against the US.

Many find a justification for not supporting the protests by labelling them ‘not good enough’ – for example, when some royalist, nationalist or sexist slogans emerge.

Others are trying to follow what is happening and run behind it. It is quite disappointing, as the Left is the one with the most potential but is incapable of realising it.

What is the situation now? How do you think it will develop in the future?

We could describe the situation as if many stones are thrown into a lake, creating many waves, then these waves might meet each other, and in the end they might converge into a single wave towards the centre. This is what is happening in Iran now.

Inflation, a crisis in the healthcare system, widespread precarity and the increasing difficulty of emigration because of COVID-19. All these things are coming together.

Everyday life has become a constant gamble. A taxi driver once told us that "they turned the country into a huge casino". Class differences have become more visible than ever before. Merely blaming outside sanctions for this does not work anymore.

It seems that people are tired. They are no longer afraid because they have nothing to lose. At the same time, they have no hope in the future (a hope for reform that was fueled in the past 20 years).

So no one can predict the future, but a new wave of protests is very probable. If no major change appears, then it is not really a matter of ‘if’ it happens, but ‘when’.

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