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Iran’s mass protests beyond class boundaries

Iran’s recent protests shattered the myth of the Islamic Republic’s solid base among Iranian working class and traditionalist rural-dwellers and the simplistic narrative of middle class versus working class protesters.

Anti-government protests in Karaj, 31 December 2017. voanews.com. Public DomainIran’s recent protests have done more than bloodying the regimes’ nose. Most significantly, the protests stripped another layer of the regime’s already thin legitimacy, particularly amongst a constituency traditionally presumed to be the Islamic Republic’s backbone: low-income social strata and rural regions. But the protesters’ motivations are not exclusively economic and class-based.

Despite the Islamic Republic’s longstanding resilience in surviving political crisis, the recent mass protests were a bad omen for the regime. It’s leadership, characteristically, blamed the protests on foreign agents. Security forces rounded up thousands of protesters, presumed ringleaders and potential agent provocateurs. There have been about 30 confirmed fatalities with the suspicious deaths of some detainees. However, the announcement of General Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (I.R.G.C) about “the end of the new sedition” was as hollow as George Bush’s “mission accomplished”. Few believe that this will be the end of the affaire, but rather the beginning of a new phase in the conflict between nation and state in Iran.

The common wisdom, currently dominating mass media, perceives the recent protests as a working class phenomenon. This is similar to the analysis, which described the Green Movement as a middle class spectacle. Both perceptions have a significant element of truth in them but minimize other significant factors in their attempt to pigeonhole multifaceted, multi-angled developments of a complex and vibrant country. There have been some thoughtful and constructive writings on “the working class protests” hypothesis, but generalizations such as the Guardian’s “it’s the economy stupid” oversimplifies a very complex situation without enough empirical data. To put it bluntly, it is a presumption based on speculative perception.

There is no denying the economic factor in the protests. High numbers of protesters were from small cities and towns; suffering from longstanding economic hardships (ills caused by uneven developments) and gradual cuts in state subsidies and general mismanagement of the economy. The regime’s own impression strongly confirms this and some Iranian officials and supporters have proclaimed their dismay and fear. One Shia cleric stated:

“The incoming sedition is that of the southward dwellers. The uptown sedition is over and those ‘pansies’ can be easily rounded up but woe to us when those, who cannot bring bread and butter to their wife and child, come to the street. We cannot round them up and should not! Are you going to suppress the deprived?” 

Despite this, one can spot clear signs that the protests were not exclusive to the lower strata and rather linked with local and nation-wide non-economic, as well as economic, grievances.

There were non-economic motives in both urban and rural areas of Isfahan province

The recent mass protests included large cities, which were also involved in the Green Movement. Rasht, the relatively prosperous capital of Iran’s Caspian province (Gilan), was one of such cities. Shiraz was another city where protesters took to the streets both during the Green Movement and in the recent protests. Tehran also saw some action since the third days of protests. As the largest and most populated city of Iran, the hectic Tehran has the largest number of working force and deprived marginalized people. However, Tehran’s protests were led by student and socio-political activists (many of them immediately arrested), who come from all segments of society. The speed with which slogans moved from economic to political, against the Islamic Republic as a whole, demonstrates the close intimacy between economic grievances and political rejection of the regime. Protesters in large and small cities and towns shouted against the ruling clerical establishment, the Supreme Leader and attacked and torched state-run religious centers.

There were non-economic motives in both urban and rural areas of Isfahan province. Again, economic grievances had a prominent role but one can spot, at least, one major political motive: the legacy of the late dissident clergy, Ayatollah Montazeri. Isfahan and other small cities of the province, also, saw clashes during the Green Movement (With around 300 arrests in the early days). The province is famed for its strong religious tradition. The late Ayatollah Montazeri had great numbers of emulators and followers in this province, which has remained hostile towards the regime. Ehsan Mehrabi (a native of Isfahan and veteran journalist, imprisoned during the Green Movement and now in exile in Germany) has pointed out that mass protests in Isfahan’s province have longstanding economic, ethnic and political causes. A good example is in the small town of Qahderijan, where protesters violently clashed with the police causing six deaths, including one policeman. Qahderijan is the birthplace of Mehdi Hashemi, a radical Islamic revolutionary and a confidant of Ayatollah Montazeri, who was executed by his rivals in 1987. In Qahderijan and other Isfahan districts kinship and blood-ties are held supreme.

Furthermore, class analysis in Iran is a confounding issue. Proficient academics of Iranian studies have cautioned that the concept of class, in Iran, must be used in most general terms. On many occasions ethnic, political and cultural belonging divert class affiliation, and culture seems to have the upper hand. Recently, there has been peaceful but passionate protests against the widespread corruption and mismanagement of factories, state agencies and investment institutions. Iran’s middle class has suffered greatly in the past 15 years. 

The 2017-18 mass protests may well prove more important than the 2009 Green Movement

The pensioners, teachers and other state employees protesting recently are or were part of this emaciated middle class. These groups are in dire economic situation and while their financial status can no longer be categorized as middle class, their middle class cultural leaning remains intact. Then there are the younger protesters, who are incensed by the regime’s corruption and economic impotence but also reject the regime’s puritan Islamic way of life. They are the recent combatants of Iran’s ‘cultural war’, which has been ongoing since the victory of the 1979 revolution.

Western viewers have glimpsed at this cultural war in Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”. Since these authors were part of Tehran’s metropolitan middle class, it was assumed by many that the said class was the only social group challenging the Islamic Republic’s never-ending crusade for a cultural revolution. This assumption is a relic of 1980’s Iran under Khomeini whereas the Islamic Republic has been loosing the cultural war for a long time. This shift took pace in early 2000s, when the digital revolution reached Iran and greatly influenced traditional Iranians. The perplex cultural changes among traditional Iranians (including the famed southward Tehran dwellers) can be seen in Ramita Navai’s splendid book, “City of Lies”.

The chaotic aspect of this cultural shift is in the area of sexual relationship, constituting an “Erotic Revolution” in Iran. The deep impact of this cultural shift goes beyond Iran’s real or supposed class boundaries and has fundamentally weakened the Islamic Republic’s grassroots foundations. 

The Islamic Republic’s official narrative, along with those of its sympathizers and apologists (including some western liberals and the so-called radical left) contemptuously labeled the Green Movement a middle-class campaign led by Tehran’s rich uptown-dwellers. This argument, by default, insinuated that Iran’s working class, the southward Tehran religious masses and rural areas were the regime’s loyal heartlands. This belief was never correct and is now shattered. A great segment of the population of Iran’s largest religious cities (Isfahan, Qom and Mashhad), marginal cities and rural towns have openly demonstrated their utter disillusion with the Islamic Republic. The 2017-18 mass protests may well prove more important than the 2009 Green Movement, because of this very reason. 

About the author

Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi is a freelance researcher of history, politics and international relations with specific interest in Iran and the Middle East. He has worked for consultancy firms such as Control Risk and Exclusive Analysis.


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